New introduction to Trotsky’s classic work, ‘In Defence of Marxism’

Leon Trotsky’s classic work, ‘In Defence of Marxism’, which recorded Trotsky’s struggle against a petty bourgeois opposition in the American Socialist Workers Party (a section of the Fourth International) in the late 1930s, on the question of the class nature of the Soviet Union, reflecting the pressure of alien classes on the SWP, will soon be republished by the Frederick Engels Foundation, in Spain. The following new introduction to the book is written by by Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales).

This book is a masterpiece from a master Marxist theoretician. Leon Trotsky applies materialist dialectics, the theory of change, to complex historical events. Here he deals comprehensively with the class character of the Russian state, at that time (1939-40) under the heel of Stalinism. In the process, Trotsky illuminates many questions which are as relevant today as when they were first written. He describes the different forms of the state under capitalism. He explains bourgeois democracy and the difference between this and bourgeois Bonapartism, with increased power concentrated in a growing repressive state like Bolsonaro’s in Brazil today. He also touches on many other vital issues for Marxists: on the absolute necessity for democratic control and management of the future workers’ state as well as the necessary instrument to create that state: a mass party of the working class. Indeed, if there was one central theme of the book it is this: what kind of party is necessary to replace capitalism with a worldwide democratic socialist revolution?

Trotsky’s literary output was vast. However, his last writings – amongst which this impressive book stands out – are probably the most important in politically re-arming a new generation of socialist and Marxist fighters who can find mass audiences in the economic and political storms to come. This is on condition that they steer consistently towards the working class and its central role in carrying through the socialist revolution.

The capitalist system has completely drained the cup of optimism to its last drop, be it in the economic field where the productive forces are in a blind alley, in politics revealed through the splits in the ruling class – more like a splintering in Britain and Europe as a whole. It is also to be found in the huge discontent which is brewing not just in the ranks of the most exploited class, the working class, but also in broad layers of the middle class, who are increasingly thrown into a pit of despair by crisis-ridden capitalism. One measure of the mass revolt that is coming is that the majority of the young in the US – the millennials – are already in favour of the idea of ‘socialism’, as the brutal journalism of capitalism, The Economist, admits in a recent leader column: “Socialism is storming back because it has formed an incisive critique of what has gone wrong in Western societies… Some 51% of Americans aged 18-29 have a positive view of socialism, says Gallup.”

The world has undoubtedly profoundly changed since this book was first written. Stalinism has largely disappeared with the collapse of the former ‘Soviet Union’ and the Eastern European regimes constructed in its image. They were ‘planned economies’, albeit with power concentrated in the hands of a privileged, greedy, undemocratic, bureaucratic elite rather than in the democratic control of the masses. However, following the Russian Revolution, these regimes developed at unprecedented economic speed and scope, by utilising planning and imitating the achievements of capitalism in science and technique. They played a hugely progressive role in developing the productive forces which transformed for a time the largely agricultural Russia from the India of Europe into the second industrial power, after the US, in the world. They gave a glimpse to the world working class of what would be possible if the planned economy was linked with democracy at all levels.

However, the ‘Soviet Union’ showed that the full possibilities of a planned economy could not be realised without it spreading through the revolution worldwide. Moreover, the dead hand of the bureaucracy – a greedy and malignant excrescence which grew with its isolation – could only be removed through a political revolution with a system of workers’ control and management established at all levels.

Trotsky outlined different scenarios for the future of the ‘Soviet Union’, one of which was a catastrophic return back to capitalism because of the bureaucratic mismanagement and crimes of Stalinism. This has now unfortunately taken place with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Stalinism itself, which resulted in an economic crisis in Russia and Eastern Europe much worse than the worst capitalist slump of the 1930s! On top of this we witnessed the world economic crisis of 2007-08, second only in its effects to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Moreover, all the economic indicators now point towards another great crash in the next period with all its attendant miseries for the masses.

Where now are the bold predictions of Helmut Kohl, German Chancellor at the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, who promised that out of its rubble would sprout “blooming landscapes”? He promised to the masses in the ex-Stalinist states “a great journey leading to the promised land of Swedish or US living standards”. Our reply then was: “It was more likely to be via Latin America.” However, even this perspective was too optimistic, with living conditions in Russia and Eastern Europe in some areas plunging to the level of Bangladesh or India! Life expectancy for Russian men at one stage in the new capitalist ‘paradise’ fell below that of India, partly as a product of a huge growth of alcoholism. This in turn arose from mass depression and disappointment as the capitalist dream turned into a nightmare.

The masses in these states now face a similar task to the working masses of Western Europe and the world in confronting and removing from the stage of history outmoded capitalism through the socialist revolution. This would be aimed against all capitalist regimes which dominate the planet at the present time, thereby initiating a new democratic socialist confederation of Europe and the world. Only in this way will we be able to fully utilise all the great resources of the planet built up by the ingenuity and labours of the working class, thereby eradicating hunger and privation, and at the same time through a great world plan avoiding environmental and climate catastrophe.

This is what ultimately is the aim of this impressive work by Leon Trotsky. Deteriorating and unacceptable living conditions are not enough to affect serious change, never mind revolution. Nor is the willingness of the working class to fight against their immediate conditions, even against capitalism as a whole, which is evident in the constant upheavals, particularly in southern Europe and in Spain.

Only when all the conditions for revolution – a split in the ruling class; the middle layers in revolt and looking towards the working class for a way out; a feeling amongst the mass of the working class that “we cannot live like this any longer” – will it be possible to affect what would be the greatest social overturn in history, the socialist revolution.

“Subjective factor”

However all these conditions can be present yet if the most vital one is absent, a mass party, revolution can be derailed. Leon Trotsky called this the “subjective factor”, a mass revolutionary party, with a trained, farsighted political leadership, able to withstand the pressures of capitalism and their agents in the working class, the sell-out ‘reformist’ trade union and labour leaders. Even the most favourable of revolutionary situations can be lost unless a mass revolutionary party is present. This must be systematically built with the central idea that socialist revolution is the only way to liberate humankind from capitalism, a system which threatens to drag us into the abyss of increasing poverty, degradation and misery.

“Say what needs to be said; do what needs to be done,” says Trotsky. He does not just platonically advocate the necessity for a mass workers’ party with a revolutionary leadership but, as this book illustrates, is very attentive to all the basic tasks involved even in the assembling of the building blocks for such a force. He does not minimise obstacles: “The selection and education of a truly revolutionary leadership, capable of withstanding the pressure of the bourgeoisie, is an extraordinarily difficult task.” Difficult but not impossible!

The record of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) – and its parties and formations – has demonstrated this clearly. It was not right-wing trade union leaders, nor the official Labour ‘left’ who successfully defeated Thatcher in Liverpool in the 1980s through mass action – including a citywide general strike. It was Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, a section of the CWI, which provided the strategy, tactics and leadership to force Thatcher to retreat. This mass movement forced Thatcher to give back to the city millions of pounds which had been stolen through previous savage cuts by the Tory government itself. This allowed Liverpool City Council to build more council housing than all other councils in Britain put together. Other ‘reforms’ were undertaken such as three entirely new parks, while at the same time creating thousands of local authority jobs, including the employment of a substantial layer of women, young black and Asian people – with the support of the trade unions. They had previously been discriminated against and denied employment by the previous administrations of capitalist parties, the Tories and the Liberals. This was a living example of real reforms for the working class as a product of serious mass struggle and not just pleading from pliant trade union leaders and politicians who now are ‘reformists without reforms’.

This was followed by the mighty poll tax battle with 18 million people mobilised by Militant and its allies into an army of non-payment which defeated the tax and saw the hated Thatcher resign. Thirty-five members of Militant, including the heroic Militant Labour MP Terry Fields, were jailed alongside many others in the wider anti-poll tax movement but Thatcher was consigned to history.

Similar heroic work has been carried out by the Irish section of the CWI in the defiant movements against the water charges, in the anti-abortion movement and in many other battles. There have also been the colossal mobilisations – including the organisations of general strikes of young people in particular – by our sister organisation Izquierda Revolucionaria (IR) together with the splendid school students union Sindicato des Estudiantes (SE).

Hostile class pressures

The class analysis in this book is particularly timely and relevant to the situation facing all socialists and revolutionaries today – including those assembled in the ranks of the CWI. We have faced many hostile class pressures, at times, unfortunately, reflected in our ranks, particularly in the period after the collapse of Stalinism. This invariably arose from those seeking ‘short cuts’, invariably buttressed with the argument that we need ‘allies’, particularly when the working class and its organisations do not appear to be active or moving into an immediate collision with capitalism. We faced this from former comrades in Scotland, who originally argued for the necessity to abandon, ‘submerge’ the structures of our party, ostensibly in order to win over layers of reformists who appeared to be moving politically closer to us.

However, instead of these comrades winning these ‘sympathetic’ forces to us, our former comrades were instead won over time to reformism and ‘left’ nationalism. This represented the beginning of the liquidation of the ideas and organisation of the CWI in Scotland. All but a handful of the leaders of the Scottish Socialist Party and the CWI subsequently politically collapsed – making in the process unprincipled concessions to Scottish nationalism. They have subsequently disappeared from the Scottish political scene, while some of the early pioneers of ours in Scotland remain steadfast members of the CWI and continue to play an important role. For instance, in the recent magnificent strike of working-class women in Glasgow who instinctively turned to their male co-workers for support and become involved in the strike, the Unison branch secretary is a member of Socialist Party Scotland, affiliated to the CWI.

There is nothing new in an attempt to find an ‘easier’ road to influence the working class by watering down the approach and programme of Marxism. Usually, this is building on sand. Many Trotskyists had in the past and even today struggled against great odds but because of a certain isolation arising from contemporary unfavourable conditions – particularly in the advanced industrial countries in the post-Second World War upswing – the working class appeared on the surface to be politically quiescent and even accepting of capitalism. Some Trotskyists, like Ernest Mandel and his supporters, looked towards ‘other forces’, for example students as ‘detonators’ for revolution. ‘New leaders’ like Tito and Fidel Castro were embraced, with the ideas of ‘guerrillaism’ as the new ‘model’ for struggle. However, Mandel and others only succeeded in misleading and destroying their forces, particularly in Latin America, some of them quite heroic fighters. This was a futile attempt to escape the patient work of building and consolidating forces in the working class and its organisations such as the trade unions.

Militant – even before the creation of the CWI – turned its back on such methods and faced up squarely to the task of winning workers, young workers first of all, and then, through them, seeking to find a road to the mass of the working class. Other Trotskyist forces adopted a similar approach, in Latin America, for instance, but with a sectarian slant. Consequently, they were invariably cut off from potentially important forces amongst the working class.

It remains a fact that it was Militant – and Militant alone – that was successful in building a powerful force for Marxism in Britain by rooting our comrades in the working class and building on solid foundations. Of course, we vigorously intervened in many of the social movements, some of them mass formations, such as the poll tax. We have also intervened, and done so successfully, in the many anti-capitalist movements and environmental campaigns, particularly where they involve the new generation in struggle. The same goes for the women’s movement, however seeking at all times to link these struggles to the organised working class.

Separatism in the workers’ movement

At the same time we have to combat and defeat all ideologically petty bourgeois political trends which seek to divide, to introduce separatism into the workers’ movement. Under the signboard of ‘identity politics’ the US bourgeois first use their ‘ideological factories’, the universities, to spread their pernicious doctrines in order to divide mass opposition to them and their system on separatist – race, gender, caste, etc. – lines. While Marxists support the rights of all oppressed minorities, we always emphasise and strive for the maximum unity of the working class.

The whole of history attests to the correctness of Trotsky’s position outlined in this book. Despite the many revolutions and revolutionary situations over the last 150 years why is it that only in Russia so far was a successful working class, democratic socialist revolution carried through? The dialectic of history meant that a Marxist party with the most modern ideas developed first in an economically ‘underdeveloped’ country because of the unique circumstances that Trotsky anticipated in his famous ‘theory of the permanent revolution’. This and the existence of the leadership of the Bolshevik party – led by Lenin and Trotsky – resulted in the victory of the 1917 Russian Revolution, whose immediate effects were felt internationally.

Rotted capitalism will not automatically disappear from the scene of history. This is a system  which is dominated now not by your ‘average’ millionaire, as in the past, but by a handful of oligarchs – billionaires – who now wield as much power as whole states and confederation of states wielded previously. It will take a mighty movement of the working class, mobilising behind them all the oppressed layers, who are already alienated from and ready to revolt against and defeat outmoded capitalism and replace it with world socialism.

The answer to how to undertake this colossal task can be found – particularly by the new generation – in reading and absorbing this book and all of Trotsky’s works.

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