CWO pamphlet: Trotskyism was a proletarian current destroyed by opportunism

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This short pamphlet, now available on the IBRP's website, aims to debunk the myths peddled by today's Trotskyists about the 'revolutionary' nature of their movement.

Trotskyism is in a state of disarray but retains influence, due in no small part to the status of Trotsky himself as the most important of the Bolshevik leaders of the Russian revolution to oppose Stalin. The CWO's pamphlet includes a lengthy section examining the positions defended by Trotsky and Trotskyism in the 1920s and 30s, contrasting their weaknesses and confusions to the much clearer contemporary struggle of the international communist left. It should therefore be welcomed as a useful propaganda weapon for groups of the communist left today.

Significantly, the pamphlet has attracted the attention of the Trotskyist journal Revolutionary History (Vol. 8, no 1). This 'serious', supposedly non-sectarian publication usually prefers to observe a studious silence on the communist left's historical role and contribution, but it does its best in a vitriolic review to rubbish the CWO's critique. But this serves only to highlight the irreversible distance Trotskyism has travelled from proletarian political positions: the Italian communist left, for example, is ridiculed for its denunciation of the social democratic parties as bourgeois, even though this is precisely the original position defended by the Third International, as expressed by one Leon Trotsky in its 1919 Manifesto�

Needless to say, my own criticisms have nothing to do with this reactionary attack. Along with the ICC I share the same basic position as the CWO on the bourgeois nature of Trotskyism due to its definitive betrayal by supporting the second world war. The problem is that the approach taken by the CWO's pamphlet gives the strong impression that there was nothing proletarian about Trotsky or the Trotskyist movement even in the 1920s, and throws into question all the oppositions that emerged from the Bolshevik Party up to the end of the 1920s.

The tone is set right at the start with the statement that, until he was forced out of power in the mid-20s, Trotsky's role was that of a "faction leader within the Russian party and state'" Even though he was admittedly never a "conscious agent of imperialism", the CWO calls him one of the "principal architects of the degeneration of the Russian revolution", whose rejection of the Stalinist policy of 'socialism in one country' was based not on internationalism but the "capitalist interests of the Russian state", etc., etc.

This attitude is strongly reminiscent of the libertarian and councilist milieu of the 1970s, which was marked by a strong reluctance to admit that Trotsky belonged to the revolutionary movement. We should recall the arguments that the Bolshevik Party could not be considered proletarian after 1921 - in its early days the CWO pronounced this to be a 'class line' (see IR 101). The ICC rightly challenged this at the time as sectarian, but it was symptomatic of the immaturity of the whole milieu; the ICC's earliest studies of the communist left in Russia (IR 7 & 8), although basically correct, reveal in their reluctant acceptance of the proletarian nature of the Bolshevik Party after 1921 and of the political current around Trotsky, the lingering influence of councilism which dogged the re-emergence of revolutionary minorities.

To be absolutely clear: the movement around Trotsky passed irrevocably into the enemy camp through its support for Stalinism and democracy in the second imperialist world war, but for all his opportunist slidings, Trotsky himself died a proletarian revolutionary. The ICC has explicitly recognised this in the article in IR 104 entitled 'Trotsky died as a symbol for the working class', and in a recent series of articles which addresses in a more profound way the strengths and weaknesses of his contribution to the struggle against the Stalinist counter-revolution (see IRs 101, 102 and 105).

The issue here is not just Trotsky or Trotskyism but how we understand the struggle of the proletarian currents within the Bolshevik Party against the attempts of the counter-revolution to capture it completely. Rather surprisingly, the CWO dismisses all of what it calls the 'Communist Party Oppositions' which, because they "had their roots in the bureaucracy", could "never challenge its social basis". Thus, it writes off the Left Opposition of 1923 and the United Opposition of 1927, both of which were allegedly products of the bureaucracy and defended anti-working class positions - even though they included elements of the non-Trotskyist Russian communist left.

We refer readers to IRs 101 and 102 for a more in-depth treatment of the weaknesses of these oppositions, but we argue that they can only be understood as a basic proletarian reaction to the degeneration of the Russian revolution. To take just one example: the signatories of the 'Platform of the 46', which formed the political basis of the Left Opposition, included elements of the left communist Democratic Centralist group like Sapranov, V Smirnov and Ossinski. The United Opposition similarly included (at least for a time) the 'Decists' - indeed according to Trotsky himself, it was formed at their initiative, Sapranov chairing its first conference (see IR 102, p18).

The strength of the Russian left communist oppositions like the Sapranov group was precisely that they emerged from within the Communist Party itself; they were expressions of the proletarian life still left in the party, and up until their final suppression at the end of the 20s refused to abandon it to the Stalinist bureaucracy. We don't seriously think the CWO means to dismiss the Russian left communists who, as it affirms, took up the struggle against the degenerating Soviet state far earlier and more thoroughly than Trotsky or the political current he animated. In fact the CWO commits itself to redressing the "airbrushing from history" of their valiant struggle by both Stalinists and Trotskyists.

But clearly this is not just a matter of the need for historical research; it's about the basic framework communists use to determine the precise class nature of political organisations. The approach of the Italian Left - with whom both the CWO and the ICC claim political continuity - was always one of patience and rigour, avoiding hasty judgements on such questions. The reader of the CWO's denunciation of Trotsky is left wondering why, if he was merely a "faction leader of the Russian party and state", the Italian Left ever put so much political effort into trying to collaborate with him in the first place; even after their definitive political break with Trotsky in 1934, when he and his supporters "crossed the Rubicon and rejoined social democracy" (Bilan no. 11, September 1934), the Italian Left did not, as the pamphlet suggests, simply denounce his movement as bourgeois, and continued to expose its opportunist betrayals through support for one side against the other in the lead up to the second imperialist world war.

We have to ask: does this pamphlet - which first appeared over two years ago - reflect the position of the CWO (and by extension the IBRP to which it is formally affiliated) on the class nature of Trotsky, Trotskyism and all the "Communist Party Oppositions" of the 1920s and 30s, or is this a case of polemical excess getting the better of clarity, reflecting the residual influence of councilism on today's revolutionary movement?

MH, May 2003.

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This article is by a close sympathiser of the ICC. We encourage all our readers to make political contributions to our press, whether in the form of articles, letters or items of information.

May, 2003.