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a socialistworld is possible: the history of the cwi by peter taaffe
new introduction

Trotsky and the revolutionary party

Take for instance the question of the need for a party. Francois Vercammen, Secretary of the USFI, wrote an article entitled: “The question of the party: Trotsky’s weak point”.

Vercammen comments: “His weak point is the problem of the party…Trotsky did not have the capacity (1903-1917) or the opportunity (after 1917) to participate directly in the construction of a revolutionary party, in its main aspects (beyond general analyses and perspectives), namely the elaboration and implementation of a political line and concrete tactics, a collective work inside a central leadership, the construction of a political-organisational apparatus, work in common with other cadres and militants; and more generally the implementation of an internal dialectic which prioritises the experience of party militants in the elaboration of a line. Between 1903 and 1917, having broken with Lenin, he did not try to organise a current or a party (confining himself to an activity as a journalist and orator).” 5

This incredible misinterpretation of Trotsky’s position within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) reflects the criticisms aimed at Trotsky by bourgeois hacks dabbling in a “sociological” explanation of the revolution. This, in turn, is a reflection of the slanders made by the Stalinists. Trotsky’s weakness is not that claimed by Vercammen – a misunderstanding of the need or the character of a party. He participated fully in the RSDLP, which required an understanding of the need for a party and the character of the party at that stage. Vercammen’s dismissal of “general analyses and perspectives” ignores Trotsky’s major contribution to the success of the socialist revolution – in his monumental work, the book ‘Results and Prospects’, which explained and developed the ‘Theory of Permanent Revolution’. In this, Trotsky correctly anticipated the main forces involved in the first and second Russian Revolutions and, in particular, the decisive role of the working class as the primary force in the alliance with the peasantry, which allowed it to take power in October 1917.

Trotsky’s mistake – openly admitted by him, in his ‘Diary in Exile’, for instance – was not on the issue of the party, the need for such a party, the character of such a party, etc. It was on his “conciliationism”, his hope for a reconciliation between Bolshevism and Menshevism between 1907 and 1912. He hoped that, as in the 1905 Revolution, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks would be forced together under the pressure of the masses. Incidentally, he was not alone in this. The ranks of the Bolshevik party put so much pressure on Lenin that on a number of occasions between 1906 and 1912, he was compelled to undertake “unity” negotiations with the Mensheviks. Moreover, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were united in common organisations in many parts of Russia (outside of Petrograd), up to September 1917. Unlike these particular ‘Bolsheviks’, Trotsky never entertained political illusions in the Mensheviks, but sharply and widely diverged from their political programme and perspectives. Therefore, on the political characterisation of the Mensheviks, Trotsky was at one with Lenin. We repeat, where Trotsky made a mistake was not on the question of the party. It was on the illusion that under mass pressure both wings of the RSDLP would be compelled to come together and be forced to accept the main lines of his approach towards the revolution, outlined in the permanent revolution, and the strategy and tactics that would flow from this. Lenin, on the other hand, understood earlier and more clearly that the Mensheviks had already gone over to petty bourgeois and bourgeois conceptions of the coming revolution.

Despite this perception of Lenin’s, Trotsky was more correct in his analysis of the coming revolution and particularly the role of the working class as the main agency leading the proletariat to take power, drawing behind it the mass of the peasantry. It is an historical fact that Lenin, in effect, abandoned the ‘algebraic formula’ of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” after the February Revolution and then, in practice, fully adopted Trotsky’s position.

There was no fundamental difference between Trotsky and Lenin in their approach, tactics, strategy, etc, for the revolution. The same could not be said of Stalin, Kamenev or Zinoviev. Vercammen can write, quite absurdly, that: “It was Lenin’s determination to attach himself to the ‘real movement’ in Russia, combined with a succession of complex socio-political conjunctures, which fashioned and rooted the Bolshevik party in [urban] Russian society. It was the policy of Lenin which was determinant and not his ‘conception’ of the party, such as is commonly understood (Democratic Centralism, The General Programme)… It was the political weakness of Trotsky which was at the base of his defeat at the level of the organisation. One can follow it up in the following manner: before 1917, his extraordinary capacity to grasp the significant general tendencies of the era and to draw strategic perspectives did not allow him to develop a revolutionary policy (and he was unable or unwilling to create a militant collective). His weakness on the party is located in this framework.”

And yet, as we have stated, Trotsky rather than Lenin had the clearest perspective of the forces and the outcome of the Russian revolution. Vercammen lauds Lenin’s policy quite correctly in relation to 1917 – and yet speaks of “Trotsky’s political weaknesses”. And all of this, which we have answered many times before against Stalinists, is part of an alleged defence of Trotsky! The roots of his latter-day criticism of Trotsky’s alleged mistakes flow from the incapacity of the USFI itself to build sizeable organisations in the past. Vercammen points to the failure of his organisation in 1965-68, and compares it to the period of 1895-1914, when Lenin was able to establish an outline of the revolutionary party which matured and took power in October 1917. Unfortunately, Vercammen misunderstands the whole character of the 1965-68 period and its different conjunctures. Stalinism and social democracy, he claims, began to “break up” in the period prior to the May events of 1968. This is just not true. Reformist organisations and the consciousness that goes with them still, in general, held a grip on the minds of the masses in this period. For us,as Marxists, social democratic and mass Stalinist parties were an objective factor, which could only be overcome by events. This happened to some extent in the revolutionary events in France of May-June 1968. However, the absence of a mass revolutionary party and leadership at this time allowed the Stalinist French Communist Party and the reformist ‘Socialists’ to re-establish their control and derail this potential revolution.

In Britain, during the 1970s and 1980s, Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, made breakthroughs in Liverpool and in the anti-Poll Tax struggle. Unfortunately, as we have explained elsewhere, this promising beginning to the building of a mass revolutionary party was cut across by the boom of the 1980s and, of course, by the collapse of Stalinism. Vercammen’s rewriting of Trotsky’s role and Trotsky’s alleged ‘weakness’ on organisation and the party, etc, combined with his sublimated political criticisms, betrays an impatient approach to the problem of assembling the outline of a party and building such a force. This task involves understanding the different stages through which the working class and its level of understanding will pass. It means being prepared to stand against the stream in certain periods, at the risk of being accused of being sectarian. But it also means assembling a working-class cadre, rooting the party in the working class neighbourhoods and organisations – trade unions, co-operative societies, etc. – and seizing the opportunities to create a mass or semi-mass base, as and when they arise.

Incredibly, Vercammen accuses Trotsky of being “indecisive and confused (even after 1905) on the question of electoral support to the liberal bourgeoisie”. This is done without any attempt to explain what Vercammen means by this. However, when it comes to the question of the peasantry, he directly attacks Trotsky and thereby one of the main elements of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution. Vercammen states: “In 1906, and the years that followed, he satisfied himself with two theoretical generalisations which translated above all the prejudices of European Marxism at the time (post-Marx): historically, the countryside follows the town and the peasantry the proletariat (industrial, urbanised); at the same time, the peasantry is incapable of following an autonomous political line and creating an independent organisation”. He goes on further to echo the criticisms of the Stalinists, and the latter-day theoretical ‘Stalinists’ of the DSP in Australia, in arguing: “Trotsky did not seek, unlike Lenin, the construction of a real workers’ and peasants' alliance, with all its demands. By its abstract character, the theory proved a veritable trap for Trotsky”6 This is merely an echo of the Stalinists’ argument on the “underestimation” by Trotsky of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry.