Assessing Trotsky

On the 98th anniversary of the October Revolution, how should we assess the legacy of Leon Trotsky?

Cubo-futurist rendering of Trotsky, uncredited (probably Yuri Annenkov, 1922).

In his short biography of Leon Trotsky, Paul Le Blanc, a longtime scholar and Trotskyist activist, emphasizes “the aspects of unoriginality in Trotsky’s thought,” notably, but not exclusively, his “vaunted theory of permanent revolution, his analysis of Stalinism, [and] his prescriptions for defeating Hitler.”

Trotsky, Le Blanc avers, drew these aspects from Marx and the Marxists of his own time, including the best of pre-1914 Second International Marxism, as well as from the “collective project of the early Third International.” More often than not, Trotsky was merely “applying old principles to new realities.” It is in this broad sense, he argues, that Trotsky remains relevant today.

This is an unconventional stance. As a rule, followers of Trotsky stress his original contributions to the classical Marxist tradition; and they have traditionally understood these to be precisely, as Le Blanc says, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, his analysis of Stalinism, and writings on how to fight Nazism.

But, in Le Blanc’s rendering, Trotsky’s individuality as a thinker largely disappears; his writings essentially reduced to, and understandable in terms of, “plain Marxism.” This is hard to credit. Trotsky had a specific, unique take on permanent revolution. Equally, Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism was hardly in line with “classical Marxism” because there was no classical Marxist position on this historical phenomenon in the first place. Finally, Trotsky made original contributions to Third International Marxism, notably the united front theory and its political relevance to the struggle against the rise of Nazism in Germany.

Permanent Revolution

In the early twentieth century, most Marxists held the view that any future Russian Revolution could only take the form of a “bourgeois-democratic” revolution. Economically, it would sweep away the remnants of Russia’s feudal order, above all, the Tsarist state, and, by giving land to the peasants, allow capitalism in agriculture to switch from a slow, “Prussian” tempo of development to a fast-moving, “American” one.

Politically, the revolution would replace a feudal autocracy with a capitalist state, ideally, a republic. The workers’ movement would then take full advantage of newly won freedom of press, assembly, and speech to organize much as their Western European counterparts had. With these key bourgeois-democratic tasks solved, Russian social democracy would then press on and fight for socialism, just like their opposite numbers in Germany, France, and other advanced capitalist countries.

Against this widely accepted view, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution presented an alternative scenario.

First lined out in 1906, Trotsky brilliantly forecast the course and outcome of the Russian Revolution. Le Blanc summarizes the idea as follows:

The revolutionary struggle for democracy in Russia could only be won under the leadership of the working class, with the support of the peasant majority.

This democratic revolution would begin in Russia a transitional period in which all political, social, cultural, and economic relations would continue to be in a flux.

This transition would be part of, and would help to advance, and must also be furthered by, an international revolutionary process.

Far from being original or innovative, Le Blanc holds that Trotsky’s perspectives flowed “naturally from the revolutionary conceptualizations inherent in the analyses and methodology of Marx himself.”  However, there are reasons to doubt this.

Trotsky’s perspectives on the Russian Revolution were unique.  No one else shared them — not Marx, not Lenin, not Luxemburg, not Kautsky, not Parvus, not Riazanov, not Mehring — even though all were intimately familiar with Marxist methodology.

Though Le Blanc argues otherwise, there was only one version of permanent revolution — Trotsky’s. No one else adhered to Trotsky’s analysis of the coming Russian Revolution: that only workers could overthrow Tsarism and that as a result the democratic revolution in Russia would have to be a proletarian-socialist one, not a “bourgeois-democratic” one.

Trotsky argued that the working class would take power and, with the support of the peasantry, carry out “bourgeois-democratic” tasks — essentially, peasant expropriation of the landed gentry — simultaneously with socialist tasks — worker expropriation of capitalists. There is no non-revolutionary “transitional period,” in this account, between the bourgeois-democratic and the proletarian-socialist phases of the revolution.

Trotsky thought that the victory of socialist revolution in Russia would inspire workers abroad to do the same. Without successful proletarian revolutions in the advanced capitalist West in the very near future, no transition to socialism in Russia is possible owing to peasant opposition to a planned economy or successful imperialist military intervention. He was alone in all these views and was only vindicated in 1917 when the Bolshevik Party moved independently of him to adopt the practice of permanent revolution, in Lenin’s famous April Theses.

Trotsky’s role in the October Revolution that followed is well-known and Le Blanc rightly dwells on it.  He was an outstanding orator and could sway those who heard him like no other tribune of the Russian Revolution.  The praise is fully merited.  Here, though, a sense of proportion must be maintained and all hero-worship avoided.  Lenin and Trotsky were ”co-leaders” of the Revolution, as Le Blanc says — but only because they were leading members of the Bolshevik Party.

Trotsky could only be in one place at one time in 1917; the Bolshevik Party was somewhere all the time, and was everywhere across Russia at the same time. Thousands of Bolshevik worker-leaders and educators fanned out among the workers, little Lenins and little Trotskys explaining what was happening and what needed to be done. The October Revolution could have won without Trotsky, but Trotsky (and Lenin) could not have won without the Bolshevik Party.

As commissar of defense, Trotsky led the Red Army in battle against the Whites. His gifted generalship, and his ability to rouse worker-soldiers to do their duty, stood the Bolsheviks in extraordinarily good stead — a legacy Le Blanc praises even if he takes exception to Trotsky’s “authoritarian” and  “ruthless” methods.

Socialism in One Country

Victory in the Civil War (1918-1921) thrust the Bolsheviks into new, hitherto uncharted waters.

During the Civil War, virtually no Bolshevik thought victory over the Whites would be durable without successful workers’ revolutions in the advanced capitalist West.  If such revolutions failed, the October Revolution would soon be reversed.  And without a workers’ state in Russia, a transition toward socialism in that country was unthinkable.

But the unthinkable became thinkable. Trotsky led the Red Army to victory without the help of victorious workers’ revolutions abroad. Something which the theorist of permanent revolution had thought highly improbable became an actuality: the unintended formation of an isolated workers’ state.

When peasant uprisings and working-class protests forced the Bolsheviks to abolish War Communism in 1921 and implement the New Economic Policy (NEP), a new task now faced Lenin’s party: how to begin a transition toward socialism in peasant-dominated Russia without the direct and immediate aid of workers abroad. Trotsky and every Bolshevik believed that building “socialism in one country” was still possible, at least for a while. As Le Blanc rightly says, despite the defeat of revolutions abroad, Trotsky

worked tirelessly, after the 1917 revolution (and particularly in the 1920s), to help build up and develop the economy of the Soviet Republic, that he explicitly, consistently, and energetically sought to do this in a manner that would contribute to the country’s development in a socialist direction.

Le Blanc says little about this unprecedented project, which Trotsky had never theorized before.  He is virtually silent about Trotsky’s “manner” of developing the Soviet Union’s economy in a socialist direction under the NEP.

Le Blanc pretty much skips this period in Trotsky’s life to focus instead on his time in exile between 1929 and 1940, after Stalin’s victory and the destruction of the NEP, when Trotsky “sought to defend and explain the relevance of heroic best that was in the early Communist tradition.”

This near-exclusive focus on the last phase of Trotsky’s life is most regrettable, because it essentially excludes any in-depth discussion of what Trotsky might have done differently under the NEP to stop Stalin.

Le Blanc basically assumes that Stalin’s victory was a foregone conclusion, inscribed in “objective conditions” as the sacramental phrase has it — without considering how Trotsky himself might have inadvertently contributed to the formation of those objective conditions in the first place. As this problematic speaks to the question all inquiring people want answered — was Stalinism inevitable? — it merits a very close look.

Trotsky’s sharp, inner-party polemics about “bureaucratization” and the lack of “inner-party democracy” in NEP Russia almost invariably came into play not just in relation to promoting an internationalist foreign policy, but also in relation to Trotsky’s special economic strategy for building socialism in Russia.

In contrast, Le Blanc tends to discuss both contentious issues in abstraction from concrete policy questions. This is an analytically disabling weakness shared by many historians, Marxist and non-Marxist alike, who have studied this period closely.

Trotsky did not call for inner-party democracy just to hear himself and others talk, of course. He wanted to use freedom of discussion for a definite purpose, not admire its existence for no definite end.

In a nutshell, Trotsky thought he could persuade the party to adopt his domestic and foreign policies by majority vote only on condition that the leadership allow freewheeling democratic debate among rank-and-file party militants, not top-heavy bureaucratic “debate” dominated by business-as-usual apparatchiks who, collectively, Trotsky believed, had little interest in proactively building socialism at home, or working intelligently and conscientiously for socialist revolution abroad.

Le Blanc, however, practically ignores Trotsky’s distinctive economic policy prescriptions, grounded in a unique analysis of the Soviet economy’s relationship to the world capitalist market. Instead, he quickly moves back to emphasize Trotsky’s “plain Marxist” proposition that building socialism to completion was possible only on a planetary scale.

There is a reason for Le Blanc’s shift in focus from the new back to the old in Trotsky’s thinking, from Trotsky’s special domestic economic strategy back to the ABCs of Marxism, from “Trotskyism” back to “plain Marxism,” from the uncommon to the commonplace.

Le Blanc and virtually all other Marxist historians make the final victory of “socialism in one country” the central issue opposing Stalin and Trotsky because doing so automatically grants victory, rightly, to Trotsky and to “plain Marxism,” which denied this victory was possible. Case closed.

Only people wholly ignorant of Marx and Lenin could contest this victory. But this triumph of Trotsky’s, rebroadcast by Trotsky’s followers ever since, was largely a paper one, achieved simply by marshalling an interpretation of Marx and Lenin that was faithful to — because based on — an honest reading of both men’s writings: it was a theoretical victory too easily won with little political purchase because it could not provide Trotsky (or anybody else for that matter) with much guidance about what to do in the here and now.

The central issue domestically for Trotsky in the 1920s was far more concrete and practical than Le Blanc and most Trotskyists allow: What was the best way to build socialism in Russia, under the NEP, until final salvation came from abroad?

To make a long and complicated story short, Trotsky proposed an industrialization program which, he thought, would more speedily develop the forces of production, converting peasants into workers, thereby strengthening the material foundations of socialism in the country. The features of this program, along with the (faulty) assumptions which founded it, need not detain us here.

As the 1920s progressed, however, Trotsky warned ever more insistently against Stalin’s vacillating, “centrist” policies, now tending to the left, toward building socialism, now tending to the right, toward restoring capitalism.

Trotsky notably attacked Stalin’s ally and theoretician of building an autarchic socialism, Nikolai Bukharin, for thinking that domestic, “free-market” mechanisms could trigger economic development because this approach dangerously underestimated the “capitalist” character of that development. This policy, if systematically pursued, would ultimately lay the basis for capitalist restoration in Russia, and the destruction of the workers’ state.

Trotsky thus summed up his multifaceted political struggles throughout much of the 1920s as the struggle against centrism, not against Stalinism. The two terms are not interchangeable because the difference between them is not terminological but substantive. Though “Stalinists” dominated the Party, roughly from 1925 on, there was still no “Stalinism.” Le Blanc downplays the significance of this distinction. He is not alone.

Stalinism only came into its own in 1929, when Stalin threw his centrism overboard by abolishing the NEP and launching the Five Year plans and collectivization. This so-called “revolution from above” created a new set of property and class relations, destroying those originally set up and consolidated by the October Revolution.

Only then can we properly speak of Stalinism as the eponymous term for a new mode of production, a new class society where the bureaucracy was able to link the factory floor and the agricultural kolkoz to the state sufficiently tightly to forcibly extract a surplus from the immediate producers on a regular basis.

This history leads us to the big question: did Trotsky help pave the way for the victory of Stalinism — or did he fight Stalin and all his plans? Le Blanc’s answer is unequivocal, as is that of all his followers, even the most critical ones: “The core of what would be identified as ‘Trotskyism’ decades later,” he writes, was its “insistence on working-class democracy” and against Stalin’s one-party dictatorship.

For Le Blanc, this insistence can be found as early as 1926, in the “Platform of the Thirteen,” the programmatic statement of the United Opposition of 1926-1927 led by Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev. But this document does not “insist” on this. And therein lays a tale.

There is no demand for multi-party working-class democracy in the Platform of the 13 — saying otherwise is a gross misrepresentation on the part of Le Blanc and others. The United Opposition sought to achieve its programmatic goals at home — essentially, speedier economic development on the basis of the NEP — through the Communist Party, not outside it.

With the exception of the Democratic Centralists of 1928, all the “inner” party oppositions of the 1920s, beginning with the Workers’ Opposition (1920), the Democratic Centralists (1920), the Left Opposition (1923), the Zinoviev-Kamenev Opposition (1925-1926), the United Opposition (1926-1927), the Left and Right Oppositions (1928-1929) thought the interests of workers and peasants could only be realized through this party.

None considered organizing independently to present a party-political alternative to it. None ever called into question this party’s monopoly on politics. All rejected talk of a second workers’ party. Nevertheless, the very existence of these oppositional currents does at least speak to the non-monolithic character of the Bolshevik party in the 1920s.

Besides endorsing one-party rule and accepting the NEP, another feature common to these oppositions, including that of the Democratic Centralists of 1928, was their struggle against “bureaucracy.”

Indeed, the party leadership itself, beginning with Lenin, had protested the scourge of bureaucracy, of incompetent and corrupt administration. So had Stalin. And Bukharin. In fact, everyone had come out against this phenomenon — who could possibly be for it? Le Blanc is mistaken to think that this was Trotsky and the Left Opposition’s signature struggle, setting it apart from other oppositions.

If neither the struggle against bureaucracy, nor the struggle for inner-party democracy, nor acceptance of the NEP can capture the distinctive core of Trotsky’s thinking for building a socialist Russia in this period, what can?

The solution to this puzzle is to be found in the historically specific circumstances under which Trotsky and the Left Opposition operated in 1928-1929, circumstances that compelled it to distinguish itself from all other oppositions of the past not just theoretically, i.e., Trotsky’s analysis of the Left (proletarian), Center (Stalinist) and Right (pro-capitalist) party tendencies, but practically as well. Le Blanc does little to elucidate those circumstances because they show Trotsky and Trotskyism in a very bad light. What were those circumstances?

Up until 1927, all oppositions emerging under NEP had operated against a background of more or less steady economic recovery and improving living standards for workers and peasants — with the hope of still better times to come. The more these oppositions unanimously decried Stalin’s bureaucratic rule, the more easily the non-party masses could reconcile themselves to the rule of bureaucracy since such rule seemed to be in their material interests.

Certainly, these oppositions were not going to get support inside the party to battle bureaucracy given that the party apparatus itself was increasingly staffed and run by an unelected bureaucracy, headed by Stalin, with vanishingly small numbers of “Old Bolsheviks” — militants who had joined the party in 1917 and before — holding office.

In 1927, however, what was good for Stalin and the party bureaucracy and what was good for the immediate producers, most especially the peasantry, no longer appeared to dovetail — a telltale sign that Soviet society was cleaving into antagonistic classes.

In November 1927 widespread harvest failures triggered a reduction of grain deliveries to the cities, leading to dramatic hikes in the price of bread for workers. This crisis of underproduction was not the result of Stalin’s “mistaken” agrarian policies, as Le Blanc and many others hold, uncritically repeating Trotsky’s explanation.

Rather, it was the unintended result of millions of peasant households acting in their self-interest, actions ultimately determined by their non-capitalist relation to the land and to each other.

To get grain from the peasants Stalin resorted not to forced collectivization but to requisitioning without payment. This greatly alarmed his ally Bukharin, who feared that Stalin’s war communist methods jeopardized the lynchpin of the NEP, the worker-peasant alliance, the smychka.

Bukharin, joined by trade union council chairman M.P. Tomsky and A. I. Rykov, the nominal premier, began to form early in 1928 what Trotsky called the “Right” Opposition (a mislabel that stuck) to oppose Stalin’s smash-and-grab operations that threatened to alienate millions of peasants and turn them against the state.

Stalin’s search-and-seizure operations greatly exacerbated the crisis, as peasants responded by further cutting back on production to minimize their exposure to a marauding state. A self-reinforcing, downward spiral had begun, threatening to turn crisis into catastrophe.

In 1928, the leadership introduced food rationing. Workers’ real wages began to decline, reversing the more of less steady improvement in living standards of the previous years, the halcyon years of NEP, when the sun had shone on just about everybody.

Critically, only now could an opposition to Stalin’s leadership have had the potential to garner popular support outside the party bureaucracy, to defend the NEP and preserve the worker-peasant alliance, because only now were Stalin’s policies immediately threatening to inflict great damage to the masses’ well-being, that of the peasants above all.

Bukharin understood all too well that Stalin’s cure for the grain crisis was worse than the disease. Thus, a window of opportunity opened, ever so slightly to be sure and ever so briefly, to save the Russian Revolution from final destruction by mobilizing workers and peasants in its defense. Trotsky and the Left Opposition did everything in their power to slam this window shut.

Throughout 1928 Bukharin challenged Stalin’s predatory policies in the countryside, recognizing in them the risk of disaster. The Left Opposition did not.  Bukharin and his cohorts, Trotsky explained, in trying to placate the ostensibly kulak-led peasantry, were simply opening the way for capitalist restoration in agriculture and, eventually, in industry. This would be the greatest evil. Trotsky’s slogan of the day was: “With Stalin against Bukharin — yes; with Bukharin against Stalin — never!”

Refusing to join the Right Opposition in a “united front” against Stalin, the Left Opposition instead enthusiastically welcomed Stalin’s removal of Bukharin and his supporters in the trade unions from leadership positions in spring 1929.

By that summer, the Right Opposition had been decapitated, and the Left Opposition had rallied to Stalin, its members offering their services to help build socialism. Apart from Trotsky and a few stragglers, the opposition had ceased to exist. The window of opportunity to stop Stalin had irrevocably shut.

Continued peasant resistance right through 1929 to a second edition of War Communism (1918-1921) prompted Stalin to go beyond the periodic rip-off operations of the previous two years. In December 1929, he declared all-out war on the peasantry, ordering wholesale collectivization and exiling millions of recalcitrants to labor camps, where many would die from overwork and starvation. By 1933, Stalin had consolidated 25 million peasant homesteads into thousands of gigantic farms, the kolhozy, a transformation opposed tooth and nail by the peasantry.

Simultaneously, Stalin launched a crash program of industrialization in the cities, destroying the factory committees and trade unions that had hitherto effectively represented the interests of workers on the shop floor. An enserfed peasantry and a regimented working class marked the final annihilation of the October Revolution, which had freed both from class relations of exploitation.

The Left Opposition had not bargained for Stalin’s “Great Turn” at this juncture but by then it was too late. It had jumped on Stalin’s bandwagon the previous summer and was not prepared to jump off.

Besides, Trotsky had given his adherents no compelling reason to do so. The Left Opposition could not organize a struggle against the bureaucracy since it did not see the bureaucracy as a class in its own right. It had no opponent to target. And it could not organize on the issue of Stalin’s program since his program was to industrialize.

Indeed, there is no evidence that the Left Opposition actively backed workers’ resistance in 1929 and later, let alone that it sought to lead workers on the path of militant anti-Stalinist political struggle. On the contrary, by supporting Stalin, even “critically,” the leadership of the Left Opposition only sowed confusion and demoralization in its own ranks and among more politically alert workers.

And yet, in Trotsky’s view, despite the resistance of the proletariat, Stalin’s dictatorship was, somehow, preserving the dictatorship of the proletariat and building socialism, albeit by “bureaucratic” means.

The dramatic events of the late 1920s in the Soviet Union constitute a pivotal episode in the history of the international workers’ movement, when, to use Trotsky’s metaphor, the locomotive of history could have been switched from one track to another — toward Stalinism or away from it.

Lenin accomplished such a task with his April Theses in 1917, “rearming” the Bolshevik Party to face the challenges of the day.  But Trotsky never wrote his own April Theses to rethink matters so to confront the new dangers — and take advantage of the new opportunities — that began to present themselves in 1927.

Trotsky’s view of the Right Opposition as capitalist-roaders was fantasy. So was his view that Stalin was a centrist, perpetually tossed now to the right, now to left, and incapable of striking out on his own to become the head of a new ruling class. He never came to terms with his utterly mistaken appraisal of Stalin’s politics, itself founded on a profoundly erroneous analysis of the bureaucracy as a non-class phenomenon, a “caste.” This confounds Le Blanc’s assertion that Trotsky always admitted to errors of political judgment.

Trotsky’s politics in the late 1920s remained faulty through and through. Had he revised them and reoriented himself politically and joined Bukharin to give timely leadership to working-class opposition to Stalin, this might have changed the course of history. Certainly, it was the only way it could have been changed.

Moreover, the enabling condition for a revival of soviet democracy was created only at this moment because the political synergies generated by the Left and Right Oppositions making common cause against Stalin’s rule could well have led to the formation of a second party to represent the interests of workers and peasants, not those of the bureaucracy. That is why this period is critical.

Trotsky’s failure to overcome a “crisis of leadership” — his own — in conducting a class struggle against Stalin outweigh his other accomplishments. Trotsky’s adherents — Le Blanc included — cannot possibly accept this conclusion, along with the analysis founding it, without jeopardizing their political identity as Trotskyists.

The Russian Question

In 1933, Trotsky called for a “political” revolution, not reform, to overthrow Stalin, and for the formation of new, revolutionary parties, in Russia and abroad, to carry through the struggle for socialism. Trotsky did not explain fully how he could call for this while maintaining that Russia remained, as before, a “degenerated workers’ state” that had only needed reform.

What had changed about the structure of this state by 1933 that made revolution, not reform, the only way forward? Trotsky never convincingly answered this question, creating unending debate among his followers. Le Blanc leaves this perplexing issue alone.

Le Blanc writes that Trotsky’s reputation as an anti-Stalinist rests in good measure on a merciless criticism of Stalin’s tyranny in The Revolution Betrayed. This is undoubtedly so. But he could have done more to save the revolution from such a fate. Had he been successful, this work need not have been written.

Trotsky, of course, continued resisting Stalinism once in exile — a daunting task since Stalin’s triumph in Russia in 1929-1933 established his uncontested domination not only over the Russian Communist Party, but over all major foreign Communist parties as well. This power meant that Trotsky’s attempts to launch revolutionary alternatives in the 1930s were all but doomed to fail.

He continued to make major contributions, however. Le Blanc is correct to say that every Marxist can learn much from Trotsky’s writings on the rise of Nazism in Germany. Unlike the rise of Stalinism, Trotsky understood this phenomenon immediately and completely. He protested Stalin’s ultra-left line that fascism and social democracy were “twins” and that it made no difference to the working class whether one or the other won.

The German Communist Party accepted Moscow’s position all the more readily since an irrepressible and powerful ultra-leftism had dogged German communism from its very inception in 1919, nourished by an unquenchable hatred for German social democracy, which had abetted the murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg by counter-revolutionaries.

Against Stalin’s criminally irresponsible political line, Trotsky instead called for a united front between communists and social democrats to fight Hitler. Had this call been accepted by the interested parties the course of world history may well have changed for the better as this was the only way the Nazis could have been defeated — just as a similar call in Russia for Left and Right Oppositions to unite might have forestalled Stalin’s victory.

In these writings, directly addressed to the communist and social-democratic rank-and-file, and only indirectly to their leaderships, Trotsky was applying the not so “old principle” of the united front strategy to new realities. Lenin and Luxemburg, surely, would have done so as well. Le Blanc rightly recognizes there is nothing specifically Trotskyist about this strategy, originally theorized at the Third International’s Third Congress. Still, the complex of arguments Trotsky deployed in defense of this political line have no equivalent in Marxist political literature.

After Hitler’s victory, the Comintern, at Stalin’s behest, executed a U-turn in 1935, moving past the United Front to arrive at the Popular Front. Trotsky denounced this policy as well, implemented in France and Spain, which harnessed the workers’ movement to defend bourgeois democracy against fascism at the price of renouncing any struggles for socialist revolution.

The Communist parties of both countries worked overtime to suppress all working-class activity independent of or unacceptable to bourgeois parties. Trotsky advocated the United Front policy once again.

However, the position of the Communist parties was even stronger now than in the past, exercising a stranglehold on revolutionary segments of the workers’ movement. In Spain, Stalin even ordered NKVD death squads to eliminate all left-wing opponents. But, no matter how hard Trotsky tried, Stalinism could not be dislodged.

These are all exceptional writings. They have no equal in the annals of Marxism. In these extraordinary interventions Trotsky was trying desperately to avert the defeat of the workers’ movement in the West. At the same time, he was also dealing with the supremely baleful international ramifications of Stalin’s victory in Russia.

How much better it would have been had Trotsky destroyed Stalin and written about successful workers’ revolutions in the West, on a par with that of his magnificent History of the Russian Revolution — instead of brilliant dissections of their stomach-churning, heart-breaking defeats! For who can deny Stalin’s enormous role in contribution to their defeat in the first place, as Trotsky indefatigably showed time and again.

If there was a fighting chance anywhere for a revolutionary alternative to Stalinism in the advanced capitalist world to take root, the United States was it, owing precisely to Stalinism’s weakness there. Alas, this was not to be.

Trotsky made a litmus test of the “Russian Question” in his dispute with Max Shachtman, leading to a split in the American Socialist Workers Party in 1939-40 and, later, abroad as well. Trotsky’s actions — which Shachtman thought were sectarian — made even more difficult the SWP’s already fiendishly difficult struggle to gain a foothold, however modest, in the American labor movement.

The Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 supplied the occasion for Shachtman to take a long view of matters and to begin to question Trotsky’s analysis of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state that preserved the core conquest of the October Revolution, state ownership of the means of production.

Trotsky rebuked Shachtman and declared that any Marxist worth his salt had unconditionally to defend that conquest, in war or peace. Shachtman disagreed and developed an array of historically sensitive arguments explaining the difference in the relationship between state and society in pre-capitalist, capitalist, and socialist modes of production. He held that state ownership of the means of production meant socialism only if the working class “owned” the state itself and ran it democratically. If it did not, there could be no talk of socialism nor about any kind of “workers’ state.”

Le Blanc prejudges this debate, without entering it, siding with Trotsky: he says Trotsky took the field against “once leftward-moving intellectuals” who began to express “skepticism toward revolutionary Marxism” and a “growing rejection of the Bolshevik-Leninist tradition.” That is not the whole truth.

It is certainly true that some prominent intellectuals, notably Sidney Hook and James Burnham, became ex-Communists. But Shachtman and nearly half the SWP rejected Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism, not revolutionary Marxism and Bolshevism. Le Blanc says nothing about Shachtman’s critique of Trotsky.

Limitations in Both Directions

Le Blanc acknowledges that “there are serious limitations in some of what [Trotsky] had to say. This is something historians can debate and explore,” adding, hopefully, that “Trotsky’s influence — rather than simply evaporating — has been diffused within what remains of the radical left.”

It is a pity Le Blanc himself did not explicitly explore and debate these limitations, stating his position openly. Instead, he sidesteps consequent discussion of critical episodes in Trotsky’s life and fails to call many things by their right name.

Keen to make Trotsky and Trotskyism relevant to socialist activists today, Le Blanc highlights only those facets of Trotsky’s thought and activity that show his undoubted strengths as a revolutionary thinker and politician, and from which all Marxists may learn, indeed, draw inspiration from — but tip-toes around controversial positions and policies that generated wide-ranging debate among Trotsky’s followers, in Trotsky’s lifetime as well as posthumously. These omissions are very difficult to justify, especially in an introductory work.