Moscow Conferences: A proletarian debate begins in Russia

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In the wake of the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe, there arose in Russia a committee for the study of the legacy of Leon Trotsky. This committee held a number of conferences on different aspects of the work of that great marxist revolutionary. In the course of the study of the contribution of Trotsky, it became clear not only that Trotsky himself had not been the only nor the most radical and resolute representative of the "Trotskyist" Left Opposition, but that there had been other oppositional currents inside and outside Russia, situated much further to the left. More particularly, it emerged that another, alternative tradition existed within the proletarian struggle against Stalinism, that of Left Communism representatives of which still exist today. On the initiative of Russian members of the committee, our organisation, the International Communist Current, was invited to the 1996 Conference in Moscow, devoted to an appraisal of Trotsky's book The Revolution Betrayed. On the proposition of the ICC, other groups of the Communist Left were also invited to participate, but either failed to come, as in the case of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party, or refused out of a deep-seated sectarianism, as in the case of the "Bordigists". However, the intervention of the ICC was far from being the only expression of the life of the proletariat at that conference. The critique of Trotsky's refusal to recognise the state capitalist character of Stalinist Russia, which was presented to the conference by a Russian member of the organising committee, and which we are publishing in this issue of our International Review, is proof of that. A year later, moreover, the presence of groups of the Communist Left at the 1997 conference on Trotsky and the October Revolution was greatly reinforced by the participation, alongside the ICC, of another representative of the proletarian milieu: the Communist Workers Organisation, which alongside Battaglia Comunista forms the above mentioned International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (lBRP).

The legacy of Trotsky and the tasks of the present period

The conferences on the legacy of Trotsky took place in response to events of world historic importance: the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, the Eastern Bloc (and thus the whole post-World War II world order of Yalta) and of the USSR itself. The fact that Stalinism was not toppled by the class struggle of the proletariat, but decomposed under the weight of the historic crisis of world capitalism, and of its own specific weaknesses as an economically and politically backward fraction of the bourgeoisie, allowed the ruling lass to present these events as the bankruptcy not of Stalinism, but of Communism and in particular of marxism. As a result, by presenting its own historical decomposition as that of marxism, Stalinism, the mortal enemy of the proletariat, was able even in its foundering to render yet another great service to world capitalism. For these events were used to attack the consciousness of the workers of the world on a most crucial question: that of the historic goal of their struggle - communism itself. But if the world historic events of 1989-1992 thus resulted in a massive retreat in the level of class consciousness within the proletariat as a whole, they did not signify an historic defeat of the working class, whose combativity and capacity for collective reflection remained intact. Thus, while causing a retreat in the consciousness of the mass of proletarians, these events also contained the perspective of a quantitative development, and of a qualitative maturation of small revolutionary minorities of the class. By brazenly equating Stalinism with communism, the bourgeoisie obliges those searching proletarian minorities who reject this equation to pose the following questions: which political currents in the history of the working class opposed the Stalinist counter-revolution in the name of communism and of the proletariat, and which part of this heritage can serve as the basis for revolutionary activity today? Now, it is a central thesis of marxism that the class consciousness of the proletariat is above all an historic consciousness, and that therefore revolutionary minorities can only fulfil their tasks by making the assimilation and critical synthesis of all the contributions of past generations of marxists the point of departure of their struggle. In particular, the marxist conception of the role of a fraction, which in a period of defeat of the proletariat has the irreplaceable responsibility of drawing all the lessons of that defeat and passing them on to future revolutionary generations (Lenin and the Bolsheviks after the defeat of the 1905 revolution in Russia; Luxemburg and the Spartakists after the defeat represented by the Social Democratic support for World War I in 1914; the Italian Fraction around the publication Bilan after the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 etc), is a central concretisation of this understanding. Of the many thousands of revolutionary elements who appeared internationally under the impulsion of the mass proletarian struggles of a new and undefeated generation of the class after 1968, impregnated as they were by impatience and a one-sided faith in the "spontaneity" of the class struggle to the detriment of long term theoretical and organisational work, most of them disappeared without trace, precisely because they failed to anchor themselves in the positions and traditions of the past workers' movement. Although the conditions for the development of revolutionary minorities in the phase after 1989 have in some ways become much more difficult, lacking in particular the immediate example of mass proletarian struggles which inspired the post-1968 generation, the fact that searching proletarian elements today feel obliged to seek and link themselves to past revolutionary traditions in order to withstand that bourgeois campaign about the "death of communism" opens the perspective of a broader and deeper rediscovery of the great marxist legacy of the Communist Left. In Russia itself, the very centre and the foremost victim of the Stalinist counter-revolution, it was only with the break -up of the rule and hegemony of Stalinism that a new generation of revolutionaries could begin to emerge - over 30 years after the same process began in the west: Moreover, the devastating world-wide effects of that half a century long counter-revolution - the destruction of the organic link to past revolutionary generations, the burial of the real history of that movement under mountains of corpses and lies - weighed particularly heavily in the country of the October Revolution. The emergence of questioning proletarian elements in Russia today confirms what the resurgence of class struggle at the end of the 60s, not only in the west, but also in Poland, Rumania, China, even Russia itself, already demonstrated: the end of the Stalinist counter-revolution. But if the conditions for re-discovering the true history of the proletarian movement are particularly difficult there, it was also inevitable that in a country in which there is hardly a working class family which did not lose at least one member in the Stalinist terror, uncovering the historical truth would constitute the point of departure. If, from the Perestroika on, the question of "rehabilitation" of the victims of Stalinism became the slogan of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois dissident opposition, for the representatives of the proletariat a very different task emerged: the restoration of the revolutionary tradition of the best of these victims, the sworn class enemies of Stalinism. It is therefore anything but a coincidence that the first faltering attempts of Russian revolutionaries to define and debate the interests of their class, and to establish contact with Left Communist organisations abroad, emerged in relation to the question of the heritage of the proletarian struggle against Stalinism in general, and the heritage of Trotsky in particular. Of all the leaders of the opposition against the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the Communist International, Trotsky was far and away the most famous. His role in the foundation of the Third International, in the October Revolution itself, and in the ensuing Civil War, was so gigantic (comparable to that of Lenin himself) that even in the USSR the Stalinist bourgeoisie was never able to completely eradicate his name from the history books, or from the collective memory of the Russian proletariat. But just as inevitably, the heritage of Trotsky became the focal point of a political, a class struggle. This is because Trotsky, the courageous defender of Marxism, was the founder of a political current which, after a whole process of opportunist degeneration, finally betrayed the working class by abandoning the proletarian internationalism of Lenin, participating' actively in the second imperialist world war. The Trotskyist current which emerged from this betrayal had become a fraction of the bourgeoisie, with a clearly defined (statist) programme for national capital, with a bourgeois foreign policy (generally in support of "Soviet" imperialism and the Eastern bloc) and a specific task of "radically" sabotaging workers' struggles and the marxist reflection of emerging revolutionary elements. Behind Trotsky, there is therefore not one heritage but two: the proletarian heritage of Trotsky himself, and the bourgeois, "critically" Stalinist heritage of Trotskyism.

The antagonisms within the conferences over Trotsky's heritage

Therefore, from the very beginning, the Trotsky Committee, far from constituting a real unity of will and approach, contained within it two contradictory tendencies. The first or bourgeois tendency is represented by members of Trotskyist organisations, as well as some historians devoted to their cause, mainly coming from the west, and attempting to gain a foothold in Russia itself, even sending members to live there etc. While participating in the conferences and claiming to serve the cause of scientific research, the real concern of these elements is the falsification of history (a speciality, but no monopoly of Stalinism). Their goal is to present the Left Opposition as the sole proletarian opponent of Stalinism, Trotsky as the sole representative of the Left Opposition, and to present-day Trotskyism as the inheritor of the heritage of Trotsky. To this end they are obliged to cover in silence most of the contributions of the proletarian struggle against Stalinism, including many made by the Left Opposition itself, including some of the contributions of Trotsky. And they are obliged to falsify the heritage of Trotsky himself. They do this, as the bourgeois Trotskyists have always done, by transforming Trotsky into an harmless icon, a figure of worship, and his political mistakes into an unquestionable dogma, while liquidating the critical, dynamic, revolutionary approach, the loyalty to the proletariat which was the characteristic of Trotsky's marxism. In other words: they "transform" Trotsky in the same way the Stalinists "transform" Lenin. It is not enough that the agents of Stalin murdered Trotsky in Mexico - the Trotskyists went on to kill the revolutionary tradition he stood for.
 
The second tendency both within the committee and the conferences, representing the interests of the proletariat, quickly opposed the Trotskyist falsifications. Although unable, due to the Stalinist counter-revolution, to depart from clearly defined proletarian programmatic positions, tins tendency revealed its working class concern through its determination to uncover completely, without either taboos or compromises the entire history of the proletarian fight against Stalinism, and to pose the different contributions on the table for open and critical debate. In particular, these elements insisted that the task of the Conferences was not the propagation of Trotskyism in Russia, but the critical appraisal of his heritage in relation to other proletarian contributions. This proletarian attitude inside the committee, in particular on the part of the author of the contribution published in this Review, found support among the Russian participants from two sides. On the one hand from young anarcho-syndicalist elements, themselves pledged to investigating the heritage, not only of anarchism, but also of Left Communism. On the other hand from certain Russian historians who, while not engaging themselves in present day organised political activities, remain true to the best traditions of loyalty to the goal of scientific truth. Some of the manoeuvres of the Trotskyists in the committee and at the conferences to silence the voice of the proletariat reminded these historians unpleasantly of the kind of Stalinist pressurising which they themselves have suffered from for so long in the USSR.
 
The sabotage of the first steps in proletarian clarification in Russia, and the establishment of a Trotskyist presence there in order to prevent the reappropriation of the lessons of the proletarian struggle in that country, is an important goal of the bourgeoisie. For Trotskyism and the left of capital internationally, who for decades defended the USSR although they were never even allowed into that country with their press, establishing themselves in Russia and preventing proletarian debate there is indispensable for their own image as the true and sole heirs of the October Revolution.[1] 

During Perestroika, the Stalinist CP began to allow access to the historical archives of the country. This measure, part of Gorbachev's policy of mobilising public opinion against the resistance to his "reform" policy within the state bureaucracy, soon revealed itself to be one expression of the loss of control and general decomposition of the Stalinist Regime. Once the Yeltsin regime established itself in power, it quickly restored a more restricted access to state archives, in particular regarding Left Communism and the opposition to the left of Trotsky. Although it was Yeltsin's government which re-introduced private capitalist ownership alongside the already existing state capitalist ownership in Russia, it understood much better than Gorbachev that any historical putting in question of its predecessors, from Stalin to Brezhnev, and any rehabilitation of the proletarian struggle against the USSR state, could only undermine its own authority.

As opposed to this, parts of the present day Russian bourgeoisie are sympathetic to the idea of exploiting an iconised, bourgeois falsification of Trotsky, presented as the "critical supporter" of a slightly "democratised" Nomenclatura, to brush up their own historical image. This concern was reflected in the presence at the conference of Stalinist Party dissidents, including an ex-member of Zhuganov's Central Committee.

The 1996 conference on The Revolution Betrayed

Trotsky's famous study of the nature of the USSR under Stalin, in which he affirmed that some "acquisitions of the October Revolution" still existed in 1936, was exploited by the Trotskyists at the 1996 Moscow Conference to "prove" that a "degenerated workers' state" with "elements of socialist economy" existed there until: the 1990s! In the mid-30s Trotsky, who despite the crushing of the German proletariat in 1933 had failed to grasp that the period was one of defeat and counter-revolution, and who had completely overestimated tile strength of the Russian workers' opposition inside and outside the Stalinised CP, believed that the world revolution had already begun and would simply restore power to the Party Opposition. The last paragraph of his book declares: "On the Iberian Peninsula, in France, Belgium, the fate of the Soviet Union is being decided", and concludes that only the victorious revolution in these countries can now "save the first workers' state for the socialist future". Although the events in Spain, France and Belgium ended with the complete victory of the counter-revolution and the mobilisation of the West European proletariat for imperialist world war, although this war and the terror which preceded it caused the definitive physical liquidation of the last remains of the organised proletarian opposition in the USSR, and the total victory of the Stalinist counter -revolution not only in the USSR, but in China and the whole of Eastern Europe, present-day Trotskyism transforms Trotsky's mistakes into a religious dogma, claiming Yeltsin's alleged "restoration of capitalism" had completely vindicated the predictions of the "prophet" Trotsky!

Against the bourgeois canonisation of the mistakes of Trotsky, the ICC quoted his declaration at the beginning of The Revolution Betrayed: "We need no longer argue with the gentlemen bourgeois economists: Socialism has proven its right to victory, not in the pages of Capital, but in an economic arena covering a sixth of the globe, proved it not in the language of the dialectic, but in the language of iron, cement and electricity." If this were true, the disintegration of the Stalinist economies would oblige us to admit the superiority of capitalism over "socialism" - a conclusion the world bourgeoisie is now happy to draw. Indeed, towards the end of his life, desperately trapped by his own incorrect definition of the USSR, the "historic failure of socialism" was a hypothesis which Trotsky himself began to take into consideration.

It is no coincidence that an important part of the argumentation of The Revolution Betrayed is devoted to "disproving" that Stalin's Russia is state capitalist - this position was constantly advanced, not only within Left Communism, but within the Left Opposition itself, both in Russia and abroad. The contribution of comrade AG from Moscow published here represents a fundamental refutation of Trotsky's position on the USSR from the standpoint of revolutionary marxism. This contribution not only demonstrates the state capitalist nature of Stalinist Russia. It uncovers the fundamental weakness of Trotsky's understanding of the degeneration of Red October. Whereas Trotsky expected the counter-revolution, if it did not triumph through an invasion from abroad, to come from the peasantry, which is why he saw the Bukharinists and not the Stalinists as the main danger in the 20s, and initially saw Stalin's break with Bukharin as a move towards revolutionary politics, he was blind to the main instrument of counter-revolution from within: the" Soviet" state which had wiped out the soviets. In fact, already his debate with Lenin on the trade union question, where Lenin defended and Trotsky denied the right of the workers to strike against "their own" state, revealed Trotsky's weakness on this question. As opposed to Trotsky's uncritical belief in the "workers' state", Lenin already pointed out in 1921 that the state also represented other classes antagonistic to the proletariat, and was "bureaucratically deformed". To this can be added another important incomprehension of Trotsky - his belief in "economic acquisitions" and the possibility of at least beginning the transformation to socialism in one country - which helped prepare the way for the betrayal of Trotskyism through support for Soviet imperialism in World War II.

This debate was not academic. During the Conference the Trotskyists, by calling for the defence of the " still remaining socialist acquisitions" in a struggle against "private capitalism" which they judged "still unresolved", were in fact calling on the Russian workers to spill their blood in defence of the interests of that part of the Stalinist Nomenclatura which had lost out through the collapse of their regime. Moreover, by presenting the wars in ex-Yugoslavia as a means of "restoring capitalism" in that country, they denied the imperialist nature of this conflict, calling on workers to support the so-called "anti-capitalist" side (in general the pro-Russian Serb fraction, which is also supported by British and French imperialism). During the open forum at the end of the conference, the ICC intervened to denounce the imperialist character of the USSR, of the wars in Yugoslavia and Chechnya, and of the left of capital. But ours was not the only voice raised in defence of proletarian internationalism. One of the young Russian anarchists also intervened, firstly to denounce the manoeuvring policy of collaboration with other left, but also right wing tendencies, on the part of the Russian branch of the Militant tendency within Trotskyism. But above all, the comrade denounced the imperialist character of World War II, and of Russia's participation in it - probably the first, and thus an historic internationalist public declaration of this kind by a new generation of revolutionaries in Russia.

The 1997 conference on Trotsky and the Russian Revolution

This conference was mainly dominated by a much more direct confrontation between Trotskyism and Left Communism. The impact of the latter was greatly enhanced by the presence and the courageous interventions of the Communist Workers Organisation, but also by another contribution of Comrade G. This contribution recalled not only the existence of Left Communist currents in Russia such as the Communist Workers' Group of Gabriel Miasnikov, which opposed the Stalinist degeneration much earlier and more resolutely than Trotsky. He also demonstrated, on the basis of historically researched documents, the existence within the Left Opposition of a massive dissatisfaction and even open hostility towards Trotsky's half-hearted policies, calling instead for a social revolution to topple the Stalinist bourgeoisie.

The CWO and the ICC recalled that the Communist International had essentially been founded by the Bolsheviks and the Communist Left to spread the world revolution. The best known members of Dutch Left Communism, Pannekoek and Gorter, were put in charge of the Western European bureau of the International (in Amsterdam) by Lenin and Trotsky. The main Communist Parties there were founded by the Left Communists: the KPD by the Spartakists and the Bremen Left, and the Italian Party by the comrades around Bordiga. Moreover, the Comintern was founded in 1919 on the positions of the Communist Left. The Manifesto of the founding congress, written by Trotsky, is the clearest expression of this, showing that in the epoch of decadent state capitalism the trade union and parliamentary struggle, national liberation and the defence of bourgeois democracy are no longer possible, and that Social Democracy has become the left wing of the bourgeoisie. If, as opposed to Left Communism, Lenin and Trotsky did not remain loyal to these positions, then it was mainly because they became entangled in the defence of the interests of the Russian transitional state after 1917. This is why Left Communism is the true defender of the great revolutionary heritage of Lenin and Trotsky from 1905 and 1917. This is proven by the fact that the Communist Left remained loyal to the internationalist position of Lenin during World War Il, when Trotskyism betrayed.

The CWO and the ICC defended the gigantic contribution of Rosa Luxemburg to Marxism against the British neo-Trotskyist Hillel Tiktin, who in order to prevent Russian militants from studying her works, claimed that she had died because she had "no conception of the Party", in other words it was her own fault that she was murdered by the Social Democratic counter -revolution.

This conference revealed above all to the Russian comrades that Trotskyism cannot tolerate the voice of the proletariat. During the conference itself they repeatedly tried to prevent the presentations and interventions of the CWO and the ICC. After the Conference they attempted to exclude the "enemies of Trotskyism" from future meetings, and to remove from the organisational bureau of the committee those Russian members who defend the participation of non-Trotskyist political currents at the conferences. Beforehand they had already sabotaged the publication in Russian of the ICC contributions to the 1996 conferences on the pretext that they were of "no scientific interest".

Perspectives

We need hardly develop on the international and historic importance of the slow and difficult development of proletarian positions in the country of the October Revolution. It is evident that the development of such a process of clarification is faced with enormous obstacles and dangers. As a result in particular of over half a century of Stalinist counter-revolution centred precisely in that country, and the extreme manifestation of the capitalist crisis there, the searching proletarian elements in Russia are still isolated and inexperienced, continue to be cut off from much of the real history of the proletariat and the marxist movement, and face enormous material difficulties and the great danger of impatience and demoralisation. To this we must add the certain fact that the left of capital will continue to sabotage this process for all they are worth.

The real task of revolutionaries in Russia today, after decades of the most terrible counter-revolution in history, which has not only wiped out two generations of proletarian revolutionaries, but "stolen" the real history of our class, is that of political clarification of positions. The development of a revolutionary perspective for the working class today can only be an extremely long term, difficult task. The proletariat does not need revolutionaries who disappear after a short time, but organisations able to develop an historic work and perspective. This is why above all a maximum of clarity and firmness on proletarian positions, and a capacity to defend the real traditions of the working class is required of revolutionaries.

The ICC pledges itself to continue supporting all efforts in this direction. In particular we encourage the Russian comrades to study the contributions of Left Communism, which they themselves recognise as a genuine and important expression of the historic struggle of our class.

In our opinion the kind of conferences which have taken place to date have been an important moment of debate and confrontation, but have given rise to a proess of decantation as a result of which it is no longer possible to continue clarification in the presence of the kind of sabotage and falsifications we have seen from the Trotskyists. But the clarification process itself can and must go on, and this is only possible in an international framework.

Not only the Russian revolutionaries, but the international proletariat will benefit from this process. The text published below gives a clear indication how rich this contribution can be.

ERRATUM

Due to an oversight, the following footnotes were left out of the article 'Moscow conferences, 1997: A proletarian debate begins in Russia' in International Review 92. The second note is particularly important because it serves as an introduction to the text 'The unidentified class: Soviet bureaucracy as seen by Leon Trotsky' written by a comrade from the emerging milieu in Russia.

 

1. The Trotskyist (and Stalinist) lie that the German revolution of 1918-23 failed because of Rosa Luxemburg's alleged underestimation of the party and her negligence in founding it in time was not shared by Trotsky who gave a marxist explanation for the lateness and weakness of the political vanguard in Germany at the time: "History once again exhibited to the world one of its dialectical contradictions; precisely because the German working class had expended most of its energy in the previous epoch upon self-sufficient organisational construction, occupying the first place in the Second International both in party as well as trade union apparatus - precisely because of this, in a new epoch, at the moment of its transition to open revolutionary struggle for power the German working class proved to be extremely defenceless organisationally" ('A creeping revolution' in The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol 1, p45). In reality the fraction work undertaken by Luxemburg and the Spartacusbund within the Social Democratic Party against the treason of its leadership, and with the aim of preparing the future class party, is not only one of the most audacious and most resolute combats for the class party in history, but is located in the same excellent tradition of fraction work carried out by Lenin.

2. We are in general agreement with the analysis and the main arguments developed in this document. This said, we don't fully share all its formulations. Thus, the idea that "in 1989-90 the working class would not only fail to defend nationalised property and the 'Communist' state apparatus, but would actively contribute to their abolition" seems to us to be wrong. In no manner did the working class, as a class, appear as an actor in the convulsions which hit the so-called 'socialist' countries in this period. The fact that a majority of the workers, victims of democratic illusions, were pulled in behind the objectives of the "liberal" faction of the bourgeoisie against the Stalinist faction did not at all mean that it was the working class in action. The world imperialist wars mobilised tens of millions of workers, but this doesn't mean that the working class contributed actively to the massacres. When the working class did act as a class, for example in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918, it was to fight the war and put an end to it. But despite certain unfortunate formulations, this text seems to us to be excellent and we salute it.

 

 


[1] Thus, the French Trotskyist Krivine took a TV crew from the French-German Arte Channel to the conference, and only stayed for a few sessions to pose for the camera.

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