Building Working-Cass Opposition to Stalin’s Dictatorship?

Against the Current, No. 64, September/October 1996

John Marot

Trotsky, 1927-1940:
The Darker the Night the Brighter the Star
by Tony Cliff
Bookmarks, 265 Seven Sisters Road, London, England, 1993,
427 pages, $11.95 paper.

TONY CLIFF’S TROTSKY, 1927-1940: The Darker the Night the Brighter the Star, is the fourth and final volume of this political biography. It may be divided into two parts.  In the first, part Cliff chronicles Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture and forced-draft industrialization in the Soviet Union, between 1927 and 1933.

Cliff examines how the exiled Trotsky responded to these epochal events, and then records the response of Trotsky’s co-thinkers in the USSR. He concludes with an extended analysis of the “centrist” Stalin’s ultimate victory over and against the Trotskyist “left” and Bukharinist “right” wings of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

In the second part Cliff follows Trotsky’s efforts to found oppositional groups in a number of European countries, as well the United States, from 1928 on. Cliff surveys the interventions of various Trotskyist organizations in the crucial events of the thirties, the victory of Nazism in Germany, the failure of the Popular Front in France, the defeat of the Spanish Revolution.

Cliff closes his account with the aborted foundation of the Fourth International, in 1938. In his conclusion, he assesses Trotsky’s political legacy. Cliff poses the question of questions: Why was Trotsky and his followers unable to stem the rise of the Stalinism, either at home or abroad?

Fundamentally at issue, Cliff replies, was Trotsky’s faulty analysis of the nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Trotsky thought that the “centrist” Stalin could never, on his own initiative, industrialize the country on the basis of state ownership of the means of production, the policy advocated by the Left Opposition.

The Stalinists, in Trotsky’s view and that of his followers, were either firing on the pro-working class, pro-industrializing Trotskyist left wing of the party, or retreating before its supposedly anti-working class, pro-peasant and pro-capitalist Bukharinist right wing. There was no third way.

Stalin did find a third way. Beginning in 1927, Stalin systematically destroyed Trotsky’s analysis by doing exactly what Trotsky had said the irresolute Stalin, that “grey blur,” could not possibly do: systematically develop state-owned industry and systematically collectivize peasant agriculture.

Through industrialization and collectivization Stalin consolidated a new ruling class in a new, bureaucratically run “state-capitalist” society. It matters little how Cliff characterizes this ruling class sociologically. What is absolutely crucial politically is that it was a class, an independent social force with its own material interests, and that it ruled over the direct producers, and against their interests, by means of a coercive state.

Stalin’s practical refutation of Trotsky’s sociology had a political impact on Trotsky’s followers that was nothing short than devastating, according to Cliff. For on what principled, strategic and long-term basis could the Trotskyists mount a revolutionary opposition to Stalin’s policies?

Cliff shows how Trotsky’s followers could not find such a basis, despite searching high and low for one. Eventually, the overwhelming majority of Trotskyists threw up their hands, convinced that “Stalin’s policies of collectivization and speedy industrialization were socialist policies, that there was no realistic alternative to them” (102).

This “ideological crisis” left the Trotskyists politically disarmed before Stalin. Very quickly, thousands capitulated to Stalin.

Or did they rally to him? For the “capitulations,” Cliff points outs, were not the outcome of mere police persecution, but of political conviction.

In Cliff’s considered view, the Trotskyist movement in the USSR was not so much destroyed by Stalin as much as it collapsed under the weight of its own fundamentally faulty assumptions regarding the nature of the enemy–indeed, just who the enemy was.

Cliff cogently analyses the political ramifications of the ideological crisis of the Trotskyists before the final victory of Stalinism. In my view, however, he has not examined fully the other side of this ideological crisis, namely, the Trotskyists’ political attitude before the final defeat of the working class and the peasantry.

Whose Side Were They On?

Most directly to this point, if, on Cliff’s account, the Trotskyist leadership in the Soviet Union basically surrendered to the Stalinists without a serious fight–because the Stalinists were doing what Trotskyists thought should be done–then what was the attitude of these Trotskyist leaders toward the workers and the peasants who did unequivocally resist Stalin’s murderously exploitative policies of industrialization and collectivization?

Could the Trotskyist leadership have unequivocally supported their fight against Stalin and his policies? Cliff does not pursue this politically explosive line of inquiry, and so draws a veil over the political conclusions to be drawn from it.

This inquiry, however, needs to be made. Since Stalin carried out an industrialization program, precisely the plank to which everything else in the Trotskyist platform was subordinated, including political freedom, it follows logically from Cliff that Trotsky had no firm basis for organizing a political opposition to Stalin and, in turn, mass activity against his regime.

On what could such opposition be based? If the top Trotskyist leadership could not define a programmatic basis for organizing against the Stalinist regime, how could the rank and file leadership at the base below be expected to find such a basis, given their commitment to Trotsky’s views?

There are three interrelated points to be made here. First, the Trotskyists could not organize a struggle against the bureaucracy since they did not see the bureaucracy as a ruling class in its own right. They had no social opponent to target.

Second, they could not organize against Stalin’s program since his program was to industrialize. Third, they could not organize on the issue of the Communist Party’s monopoly of political power since Trotskyists still acknowledged it to be the vanguard of the working class.

In this respect, Trotsky came out explicitly against the formation of factions within the party, and against free, multi-party elections in the country. (His position on this did not change until well into the 1930s, when any practical possibilities of organizing were long vanished.)

In light of the foregoing, the Trotskyist opposition was left in a very poor position to organize workers’ resistance to Stalin. This was especially so because any workers’ opposition (1) had to affect the process of so-called primitive accumulation since workers, in pursuing their class interests, would struggle to lower the rate of accumulation and, in effect, jeopardize the industrialization of the country; and (2) had to take a democratic form.

The Trotskyists were not prepared to accept either element.

When the politics of the Trotskyist opposition are more finely and rigorously analyzed, strictly on the basis of incontrovertible facts presented by Cliff himself, then one is inexorably led to this conclusion: insofar as opposition to Stalinism developed, Trotskyists did not lead it, and insofar as Trotskyists led it, they led it against worker resistance to Stalinism.

More discriminatingly to this point, the Trotskyist leaders could not consistently support those Trotskyist rank and filers, active on the shop floor, in the offices, and in the neighborhoods, who might try to lead the “actually existing” worker (and peasant) opposition against Stalinism and against, broadly speaking, a dictatorial, productivist practice of “socialism.”

I. The Trotskyist Opposition, 1927-1933

To doubt the reality, in Russia, in the period 1927-1933, of an opposition to Stalinism that was meaningfully led by Trotskyists may seem absurd to many Marxists, and sacrilegious to a few Trotskyists. This is because the argument behind this doubt revises and overturns the political meaning all present-day Trotskyists, and many others, have traditionally attributed to the leadership of the “Trotskyist opposition” of the time.

My extended review and critique of Cliff is intended to carefully consider the facts and interpret them by reasoned argument.

Cliff examines the response of Trotsky and his followers to collectivization and industrialization largely through Trotsky’s eyes, Cliff’s own field of vision.

Like Trotsky, Cliff sharply condemns the successive waves of Trotskyist “capitulators” to the Stalin regime, beginning with E. Preobrazhensky and others in July 1929, and concluding with K. Rakovsky in March of 1934.

The hour of their capitulation is the gauge of their “moral courage,” according to Trotsky-Cliff. The earlier the surrender, the less “steadfast,” the later, the more “intransigent.” Trotsky, of course, never surrendered because “his moral courage and intransigence had no bounds.” (101)

Unfortunately Cliff’s moral condemnation is misplaced and misleading because it bears little relation to the clearly stated political reasons given by Trotsky’s followers, copiously cited by Cliff, to break with Trotsky, go their own way, and rally to Stalin.

These “capitulators” pledged allegiance to Stalinism not out of a lack of moral courage but out of the courage of their Trotskyist convictions, as Cliff, on occasion remarks, relevantly albeit reluctantly, almost as an aside or an afterthought, for fear of making explicit the politically anti-democratic and economically pro-exploitative implications of these convictions.

The specific date of capitulation marks the point in time at which specific Trotskyists decided that Stalin was irrevocably set on following through with collectivization and industrialization. In retrospect, we may say the earlier they rallied to Stalin, the more clear-sightedness they displayed.

Thus as early as May, 1928 the economist Preobrazhensky farsightedly wrote to Trotsky that by undertaking a resolute struggle against “pro-capitalist” kulaks in the countryside and, through them, the Bukharinist right wing of the Party, Stalin and the majority of the party was “finding a way back to Leninist politics” and showing their iron determination to build socialism (77).

Stalin, Preobrazhensky insisted, was not maneuvering merely for short-term political gains. No. He was fully committed to socialist construction.

Initially, many Trotskyists rejected Preobrazhensky’s position not because they disagreed with his assessment of the direction of Stalin’s policies but because they did not share his appraisal of Stalin’s determination to pursue these policies. Most thought Preobrazhensky was jumping the gun.

Subsequently, as it became progressively clear that Stalin’s policy was a strategy for the long-haul, more Trotskyists rallied to Preobrazhensky. Sensing the groundswell of support for his positions, Preobrazhensky in turn became more explicit in advancing these positions. In July 1929 he, Radek, Smilga, and 400 other Trotskyists publicly declared their solidarity with Stalin.

In crossing the Rubicon this segment of the Trotskyist leadership in the USSR also crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s of their position. They wrote, plainly and directly:

“We believe the policy of industrialization of the country, translated into the concrete figures of the 5-Year Plan, is the program for the construction of socialism and the consolidation of the class position of the proletariat…we believe it to be our Bolshevik duty to take an active part in the struggle for the implementation of the Plan.” (89)

Trotsky responded to Preobrazhensky by proxy, through another Trotskyist, K. Rakovsky, who wrote a lengthy critique of Preobrazhensky. So let’s first have a detailed look, as presented by Cliff, at what this most intransigent of Trotskyists, one of the last to come around to Stalin’s side, six years later, well after the conclusion of initial pump-priming period of industrialization and collectivization, under the first Five Year Plan.

Rakoysky’s “Difficulties”

In his Declaration of August 22, 1928, formally addressed to the Central Committee, i.e. Stalin, but substantially addressed to fellow Trotskyists, Rakovsky says it is “the direct duty of Bolshevik-Leninists”–Trotskyists–“to give the party and the Central Committee full and unconditional assistance in carrying out the plan for socialist construction by participating directly in the construction and by helping the party overcome the difficulties that are in the way.” (93)

Among the difficulties Rakovsky has in mind is a recalcitrant working class with its tendencies toward “workshop, localist and inward-looking moods.” Rakovsky supports Stalin’s struggle to “increase labor discipline” to combat these moods. (92)

Another difficulty in Rakovsky’s way is the lack of political discipline.  Factional activity inside or outside the party surely must not be tolerated, as this would impede the smooth and orderly progress of socialist construction.

Rakovsky is not explicit about what sort of political activity these factions might engage in. But is it unreasonable to suggest that at least one of them might give the aforementioned “inward-looking moods of the working class” an explicitly anti-Stalinist, outward-looking, politically articulate voice?

Cliff pretends not to notice this implication of the ban on factional politics. This type of factional activity was certainly “harmful” to the party and to Rakovsky because, according to Rakovsky, it “injures its authority in the eyes of the workers and weakens the foundation of the proletarian dictatorship.” (93)

Rakovsky was logical and clear-sighted: The unity of the Communist Party must be preserved, the dictatorship of the proletariat is preserved only through the Communist Party, and so democracy was must reserved to those who agree with the party line, set by the Central Committee.

Democracy must be subordinated to the higher imperative of socialist construction. Workers had to see matters clearly, through Rakovsky’s eyes.

Rakovsky does express some tactical “opposition” to…Preobrazhensky. Contrary to his fellow Trotskyist, he fears that Stalin policies might not weaken the power of the kulak enough. And he adds some sociological remarks that the complete organization of socialism can take place only in the far future and on an international scale.

But these remarks, while sociologically correct, are politically toothless and do not commit anyone to take a principled stand against Stalin in the here and now.

Cliff says Rakovsky’s position “revealed the real dilemma facing the Left Opposition: it was against capitulation to Stalin, but it used arguments which were very consonant with his policies.” (91)

There is no dilemma here. Cliff is inconsistent in pointing to the lack of moral courage among Trotsky’s supporters for capitulating to Stalin, when Trotsky had given them no secure political basis on which to maintain a political independence from Stalin.

Indeed, it is ludicrous for Cliff to condemn Trotsky’s followers for not sticking to Trotsky when they were only carrying out the political “imperatives” of Trotsky’s views. Rakovsky’s arguments are Stalin’s arguments, minus some politically secondary reservations which serve to justify a wait and see attitude toward Stalin, not an oppositional one.

There is no political opposition to Stalin here, as Cliff declaims time and again with respect to this and other documents of the opposition. Cliff’s declamations do not merely signal his refusal to come to terms with the actual political meaning of the Trotskyist political platform, but his willingness to distort that meaning so as to preserve intact the collective historical memory of a determined “opposition to Stalinism” conserved by present-day Trotskyists the world over.

Rakovsky’s critique captures precisely the fact that the “opposition” the Trotskyists had to meet and overcome was in part opposition to, and from, other Trotskyists, not Stalinists. For a majority of Trotskyists, the issue was never whether Stalin’s road was correct–it was–but how far down this road Stalin was willing to go, how determined he was.

Rakovsky thought that if the Trotskyists prematurely abandoned their political independence, they could no longer independently pressure the vacillating Stalin towards the left, to “keep him honest.”

To make sure that there will be no turning back Rakovsky is indeed “opposed” to Stalin’s abject failure to recruit Trotskyists to the Great Cause. Stalin must free all Trotskyists, and recall Trotsky from exile, for Trotskyists must be allowed to prove, in practice, through loyal service, their loyal commitment to building industry and developing agriculture, and so the foundations of the proletarian dictatorship.

Trotsky’s assessment of the position paper written by Rakovsky can be summed up very easily: He signs it.

True, Trotsky signs with a “certain unease” as Cliff says, but Cliff does not spell out fully the political meaning of this unease. Trotsky’s uneasiness is strictly theoretical, not practical, for his reservations are above all designed simultaneously to mask how Stalin’s polices have thrust the Trotskyists into an unenviable political quandary, and to offer a face-saving maneuver to extricate themselves politically from it:

“The coincidence (Trotsky wrote) of the many extremely important practical measures the [Stalinist] leadership has taken in its present policy with the slogans and formulations of our platform in no removes for it the dissimilarity in the theoretical principles from which the [Stalinist] leadership and the Opposition set off in examining the problems of the day. To put it in other words, the [Stalinist] leadership, even after having absorbed officially a good number of our tactical deduction, still maintains the strategic principles from which yesterday’s right-center [Bukharinist] tactic emerged.” (94-95)

No doubt it was true that Stalin was “building socialism in one country,” or at least its alleged foundations, whereas the Opposition viewed its construction differently, in an international context. But these were largely doctrinal considerations, not overridingly connected to political practice, because they were being overridden in practice, as Trotsky reluctantly, tortuously, but frankly admitted.

Indeed, many who would abandon Trotsky would repeatedly call Trotsky’s attention to his key admission and conclude that since there was no practical reason to stand apart from Stalin, and since Trotskyists were not doctrinaires, then the only reasonable course of action was to join Stalin. Those who didn’t were incorrigible, doctrinaires. As Radek wrote:

“If history [i.e. of industrialization and collectivization–J.M.] shows that some of the Party leaders with whom yesterday we clashed words are better than their viewpoints they defended, nobody would find greater satisfaction in this than we shall.” (82)

The bottom line, Cliff writes, was that Trotsky and most of his followers did find great satisfaction. They were “full of praise for the collectivization and industrialization, although very critical of the methods Stalin used to carry it out.” (p.53)

The caveat about methods is puzzling. Democratic methods perhaps? If that’s Cliff’s meaning, the problem is that democratic methods were already being used by workers and peasants, albeit in an informal, non-institutionalized way: They resisted, they protested, they struck, they cursed. They were humiliated, imprisoned, exiled, shot.

Had these classes had their democratic way, neither collectivization nor industrialization would have taken place–certainly not at anything resembling the pace that Stalin implemented or that Trotskyists advocated.

But the Trotskyists were determined to industrialized and collectivize. He who wills the end must will the means. So out with democracy.

Rakovsky had said so in so many words, so had Preobrazhensky, and many other Trotskyists. And Trotsky had agreed with them throughout the first Five Year Plan, because, as he said, the Trotskyists were “the only conscious expression of the unconscious process” embodied, in practice, by the Stalinists. (79)

The basic Trotskyist position, in sum, ratified by Trotsky himself, allowed no principled political opposition to Stalin between 1927 and 1933. We must now examine how this basic position situated the Trotskyist majority leadership in relation to those who, by and large, did oppose Stalin, the workers (and peasants).

II. Worker and Peasant Opposition

In the cities, Stalin’s Five Year Plan brought food shortages, an increase in the length of the working day and intensified work. The standard of living for workers dropped catastrophically, by half according to some estimates

In the countryside, the Stalinist state in statu nascendi launched a ferocious assault on the peasant way of life, rich and poor alike, kulak and non-kulak. This social and economic landscape is familiar because it has been explored thoroughly. Yet the political landscape, specifically, the response of workers to Stalin’s policies as perceived by the Trotskyists at the time is not the one the present-day observers would have easily recognized

Having chronicled the growth of working class resistance to Stalin’s policies between 1927 and 1929, Cliff then automatically equates this with an increase in Trotskyist influence in the same period. However, on the evidence marshaled by Cliff, this empirical correlation, while correct, is nonetheless analytically far more complex and contradictory then he allows.

To bring this out certain analytically crucial distinctions must be made between a Trotskyist political vanguard taken as a whole, in relation to the working class, also taken as a whole, and the internal relationship, within this Trotskyist political vanguard, between its Trotskyist leadership and its Trotskyist rank-and-file.

Let us now systematically examine the dynamic interrelationships between the Trotskyist leadership, the Trotskyist rank and file, and the working class

Between 1927 and 1929 many workers, most of them non-party, mobilized in self-defense by means of strikes, street demonstrations, riots and sabotage. Cliff cites numerous instances of the Left Opposition intervening in workers’ struggles for better wages, improved working condition, shorter hours and respect for collective bargaining agreements.  He is not as precise as he should be about just what the Trotskyists had to say in these interventions.

Cliff has a pronounced tendency simply to assimilate workers’ opposition to Trotskyist politics. Still, it is fair to ask: In these interventions did the Trotskyists act as trade-union secretaries and call on workers to retreat to purely reformist, trade-union struggles? Or did they act as “tribunes of the people” (Lenin) and urge workers to fight for these reforms by means of revolutionary, anti-Stalinist political activity?

In any event, according to the historian Michael Reiman, whom Cliff cites at great length, in late 1927, at the outset of the first Five Year Plan, “opposition activity was spreading like a river in flood. The opposition organized mass meetings of industrial workers…at a chemical plant in Moscow shouts were heard: “Down with Stalin(s dictatorship! Down with the Politburo!”

Who shouted these revolutionary slogans? Non-party workers? Very likely. Rank and file Trotskyists? Possibly. But what is not possible, as we have just seen, is the Trotskyist leadership, beginning with Trotsky, endorsing these shouted demands, giving them political form and meaning, and offering a clear perspective of struggle.

Trotsky was very clear about this. Those who refused to sign Rakovsky’s August 22, 1928 Declaration (discussed above), Trotsky declared, therefore believed that the party was unreformable, a “corpse, and the road to the dictatorship of the proletariat lies through a new revolution. Although this opinion has been attributed to us dozens of times, we have nothing in common with it.” (94)

The Stalinists had certainly attributed this false opinion to the Trotskyist leadership thousands of times. But perhaps some–“dozens”–of the rank and file Trotskyists had thought, incorrectly, that it was, or should be, the true opinion of their leadership? Let me cite this paragraph from Cliff:

“In the face of the campaign of the party leadership against the Left Opposition whom [the Stalinists] accused of wanting to form a parallel organization, some even said: “Let it organize–then we will see which party is really on the side of the working class for the existing party is starting to have a policy which is not ours.” In Krasnaia Presnia [a heavily industrialized workers’ district in Moscow with a long and militant history of class struggle dating back to before the 1905 Revolution–J.M.] many remarked that the Left opposition was right in its criticism.” (70)

Cliff says nothing about the political significance of the events referred to above. It is easy to see why. Those who advocated organizing a separate party were either not part of the Left opposition, whose leadership rejected this call, or, if part of it, could not have been supported by the leadership.

Either way, despite sharp ideological differences with the Stalinists, the Trotskyist leadership allied itself in practice with the Stalinist leadership by, in practice, similarly opposing the formation of a separate party to defend the interests of working people.

This united front with Stalinism meant the working masses could not readily see how the leadership of the Trotskyist opposition was siding politically with the working class. As far as many workers were concerned the difference between the Trotskyist opposition and the Stalinist leadership was vanishingly small.

Having to choose between defending workers and exploiting them, the Trotskyists in the end fell over themselves to join Stalin(s team. “I can’t stand inactivity. I want to build!” one of them is reported to have said. “In its own barbaric and sometimes stupid way, the Central Committee is building for the future. Our ideological differences are of small importance before the construction of great new industries.” (98)

Their thoughts turning somersaults, the truth of the industrialization drive upending the expectation that Trotskyists would be driving it, the overwhelming majority of Trotskyists signed on to build socialism “for the future.”

Worker Resistance, No Leadership

What remained of the Trotskyist opposition had split by late 1930 into three wings over the class nature of the Stalinist regime. Cliff cites the memoirs of the Yugoslav Communist, Ante Ciliga: “The era of capitulations, Ciliga writes, which had for the last eighteen months been demoralizing and disorganizing the Russian Opposition, was drawing to a close. But echoes were still to be heard of the storm that had carried before it four-fifths of the Opposition.”

The right wing remnants of the Trotskyist opposition doggedly held to Trotsky’s view, and that of the Trotskyist leadership generally, that the dictatorship of the working class existed but that the party through which the workers ruled needed to be reformed.

The center and the left wings among Trotsky’s supporters denied this. The center and left called for a political revolution, three years before Trotsky himself would issue this call, while the left called for a social revolution to underlie it as well, a sociological addendum Trotsky would never accept.

As noted by Cliff, from 1927 to 1929 the initial response of workers and peasants to the economic and political crisis of 1927 was an increase in their combativeness and consciousness, which had in turn provided a practical basis for a growth of influence of oppositional political ideas to Stalin.

Cliff chronicles in loving detail, through Reiman, this objective albeit short-termed development. What, then, contributed to the subsequent decline of the working class resistance, from 1929 on?

Cliff boasts of the rise of Trotskyist ideas between 1927-1929 without realizing that this makes the Trotskyists responsible for providing leadership in this period to the spontaneously rising working class combativeness, for helping it to develop its class struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy!

Yet that is precisely what the Trotskyist leadership could not have done because it would have meant a fight for complete political freedom. Had full democracy been realized by means of revolutionary working class self-activity, nothing less than the destruction of the Stalinist state would have been accomplished, along with its policies of forcible industrialization and collectivization.

The material premises of socialized production in industry and agriculture would not have been realized either, and the construction of “socialism” in one country would have ground to a halt.

To blame the masses for weakening the Trotskyist opposition, as Cliff does, is to betray a politically interested confusion of ideas. In this volume as with the preceding one, Cliff falsely counterposes the politics of the Trotskyist opposition to the “objective” correlation of class forces that favored Stalin’s victory, rather than seeing the Trotskyists’ “faulty” politics, flowing from their “incorrect” analysis, as contributing their part to the formation of that objective correlation.

Let’s not beat around the bush, let’s look reality in the face: The Trotskyists can claim no credit for organizing working class resistance to Stalinism. This view is not in conformity with a reverential defense of the Trotskyist opposition mounted by Cliff and most Trotskyists, but it is in conformity with the facts.

This view is anathema to Cliff, who ignores it. Instead he repeatedly explains the death agony of the Left Opposition, its final ideological crisis, as being ultimately caused by the long-term “decline in the combativity and consciousness of the working class.”

Again, this explanation is doubly confusing. First, the causal relationship Cliff posits must be reversed in order for it to conform to the actual sequence of events as Cliff presents it; and second, once reversed, the causal relationship explains the metamorphosis of the Left oppositionists into born again, “conscious” builders of Stalin’s socialism, not their political burial.

For the purposes of the argument I am developing here it may be said the Trotskyist leadership not only handed over the majority of Trotskyists to Stalin on a silver platter, it could not even lend consistent political support to working class (and peasant) resistance to Stalinism.

III. The Trotskyist Opposition Abroad

Cliff’s account never makes it clear on what national bases the International Left Opposition proposed to organize. His discussion of the Trotskyist factions inside the Communist Parties abroad is therefore exceedingly weak. Could German Trotskyists be expected to address specifically German questions not meaningfully linked to Russian questions? Or was everything inextricably tied in one bundle?*

A quantitative index of their isolation and irrelevance is that Trotskyist organizations in Germany never achieved a combined membership greater than 600, compared to the German Communist Party’s 287,000 and the German Social Democratic Party’s 1 million; in France the number of Trotskyists also peaked at around 600 while membership in the French Communist Party skyrocketed, from 30,000 in 1933 to 300,000 by the end of 1936. (195)

These minuscule figures would surely change, Trotsky believed, under the impact of the coming world war. He went ahead and founded the Fourth International, predicting that within ten years, by 1948, it would become the “decisive revolutionary force on our planet.” (293)

What falsified Trotsky’s prognosis? According to Cliff, Trotsky’s predictions of victory were negated by the stability, wholly unforeseen by Trotsky, of the Stalinist regime.

The Communist Parties grew during the war, “basking in the reflected glory from the mighty Soviet Union and still claiming the mantle of the October Revolution.” But Stalin acted as “gravedigger of the revolution during W.W.II and its aftermath.” (298) At the Soviet dictator’s behest, the Communist Parties diverted the post-W.W.II revolutionary upsurge of masses, in France and Italy especially, into reformist channels, postponing socialist revolution for an entire epoch.

Cliff starkly contrasts Trotsky’s inability to affect the disastrous course of events leading up to W.W.II with Trotsky’s brilliant analyses that forecast this very course and no other. The darker the night the brighter the star, is how Cliff puts it.

Unquestionably Trotsky had a masterful grasp of the social and political forces wracking the capitalist world in the 1930s. His writings on the rise of Nazism Germany and how to combat it stand out, as do his penetrating criticisms of the popular front strategy in France and Spain.

Unreservedly may these writings be recommended for the political education of socialists today because in them Trotsky unfailingly brings to bear on the burning issues of the modern labor movement the alpha and omega of revolutionary, Marxist politics: the world-historical emancipation of the working class can be realized only through the revolutionary self-activity of the working class internationally.

To make this point accessible to all militants, Trotsky wrote his magisterial History of the Russian Revolution, where he chronicled the exemplary experience of the Russian Revolution and the class struggle politics of Bolshevism that made October 1917 the pivotal event of the 20th century.

The supreme paradox Cliff fails to note is that it is precisely the politics of Bolshevism that Trotsky did not bring to bear, in good time, against Stalinism because Trotsky failed to see, in good time, how the Communist Party of Russia had come to represent a class unremittingly hostile to the working class. In lieu of class struggle against Stalinism Trotsky advocated, all too successfully, class reconciliation. He argued for a reformist not a revolutionary course.

By the time Trotsky changed his mind in 1933 and called for a political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy, Stalinism had already consolidated itself, at home and abroad.

Trotsky’s epochal miscalculation of the durability of the Stalinist regime at home determined his world-historical perspective for the post-1938 period, as Cliff points out. Yet Cliff pays inadequate attention to the fact that the successes of Stalinism abroad in the period leading up to 1938 also determined the medium and even short-term results of Trotsky’s political activity internationally.

Most directly to this point, Trotsky reaped the bitter fruits of defeat in Europe and America insofar as he sowed the seeds of working class defeat in Russia. For the destiny of Trotskyist political tendencies internationally was largely predetermined in Russia.

It was not just a matter of Trotsky squandering the accumulated political capital of the Russian revolution, as I one-sidedly pointed out in my review of Cliff’s previous volume of his Trotsky biography (ATC 52, Sept-Oct 1994). It was the fact that he handed that political capital to Stalin free of charge, who then used it to reap fabulous political rewards internationally by building “socialism” in one country on the ruins of wrecked socialist revolutions abroad. Trotsky paid for this defeat with his life. So would millions more.

*Let me cite one an exemplary instance. The German Communist Party was most powerful party to come out of the post-W.W.I revolutionary upsurge. Opposition currents had developed within it over the direction of its political leadership, particularly after the failure of October 1923. The German factions aligned themselves to one or another factions of the Russian Communist Party, though Cliff does not report what German factional attitudes toward issues affecting German politics at the time were. In any event, in 1928 H. Brandler, leader of the German “supporters” of the Russian Bukharin (whatever this meant in the German context) was expelled. He and his followers set up the Communist Party Opposition (KPO) with a membership of 6000.

Cliff writes that there was a “political abyss between the Bukharinist KPO and the Trotskyists. In international affairs Brandler was very from Trotsky” and close to Stalin. But on domestic issues Brandler attacked the suicidal ultra-left course of the leadership of the KPD that would ultimately pave the way for the triumph of Nazism (140). Was there not a basis for joint activity between the Trotskyists and the Brandlerites on this issue? Apparently not.

According to Cliff, Trotsky attacked Brandler for siding with Stalin in internal Russian conflicts. Again, did this have to stand in the way of reaching out to the Brandlerites on other issues, on German questions? Apparently so. On Cliff’s account, Trotsky attacked Brandler’s (momentary) exoneration of Stalin’s regime. (141)

Was Trotsky right to lend greater weight to Brandler’s positions on international affairs than to his organization’s indubitably correct call for a united front of the KPD and the SPD against the Nazis? “Of course,” replies Cliff, the abyss was there, and could not be bridged. Doubtless the abyss was there. But who put it there? Who refused to bridge it?

Beside the KPO, the Leninbund and the Sozialistische Arbiterpartei (SAP) also advocated positions similar to that of the Trotskyists because they advocated a united front of the KPD and the SPD against the Nazis. The similarity of position may have made more difficult to draw workers to Trotskyism particularly when the 6000 strong KPO was ten times larger than the Trotskyists and the SAP was larger still, with 35,000 members at least.

But what Cliff needed to explore was what repulsed the Trotskyists from these other groups. We must conclude that agreement on the burning issues facing the German workers= movement was not enough to draw Trotskyists to the KPO, the Leninbund, or the SAP. Something else stood in the way. The Trotskyists’ own sectarian politics perhaps?

Trotsky’s attempts to use his organization as a lever to move the KPD in Germany proved unsuccessful, as would his efforts to similarly influence Communist Parties elsewhere. In practical terms Trotskyism proved historically to be little more than a footnote, in Russia and abroad.

ATC 64, September-October 1996