What did Trotsky mean for communism?

23 August, 2020 · History> Internationalist militants

L.D. Trotski and Natalia Sedova in exile.

Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the assassination of Lev Davidovich Bronstein, Trotsky, by a Stalinist hitman.


Eighty years later, the defamation and character assassination campaign proceeds from the pages of the press agencies and the big newspapers around the world honoring… his murderer. It is the polite version of the celebration on social networks by stalinist thugs, now resurrected by Russian funding and always encouraged by the conservative press and even by Netflix. To top it off, as expected, the vindication of Trotsky by the groups that call themselves or were called Trotskyists oscillates between the that era ended with him, now it is time for something else from anti-capitalistas to the blatant falsification of those who want to turn him into a left-wing thinker, one of those nationalist democrats of whom he reviled all his life.

Who was Trotsky?

Trotski’s arrival at Finland Station in 1917.

From the historical perspective individuals do not make history. Figureheads express and develop within large collective movements to which they contribute and which give meaning and direction to their action. And this is true from the most miserable ones -how not to remember Trotsky’s pages on Kornilov- to the most impressive ones. To individualize them, to separate them from their social, historical and organizational context, would mean to uproot them from what gives them meaning and to forcibly transfer them from history to the harmless plane of the history of ideas, thus drowning them in ideology. That has been a constant, for instance, in all the propaganda against Marx from the slanderers he had to endure in life to the latest film biographies. In its most clumsy version it takes the form of intimate biographies and the invention of love soap operas.

That’s why the first answer to who Trotsky was can only be a communist militant. Neither a prophet, nor an intellectual, let alone a party bureaucrat.

Let us summarize in headlines his trajectory as a militant: he was an active member of the Russian Social Democracy, the RSDP, -the matrix from which among many others Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg would emerge-, head of the first soviet in history during the 1905 Revolution, a consequent internationalist, that is to say one of the few defenders of revolutionary defeatism during the First Imperialist World War, one of the few leaders of the left of the RSDP who defended Lenin’s April theses and after the February 1917 revolution, founder of the Communist Party of Russia (Bolshevik) that year and coordinator of the Petrograd Soviet Committee that organized the October insurrection. After October he is one of the main promoters of the Communist International and organizer of the defense of the soviets during the civil war. When the bureaucracy begins to manifest itself as a counter-revolutionary force, he became one of the most prominent militants of the communist left opposition first in Russia and then, from exile, internationally. This last stage of his life, the most bitter one, in which he went into exile with Natalia Sedova, saw thousands and thousands of militants killed by Stalinism, including his own children, and which ended with his own murder, is surely the one that places a greater responsibility on his shoulders.

Trotsky was expelled from the party in 1927 and then from Russia. Most of the members of the left-wing opposition were forced to submit and “repent” after being excluded from the party. They will be sent to prison and “socialist” deportation camps, where they will all be killed or executed by traitors and foreign agents. The Russian opposition was physically liquidated. Then it was the turn of the stalinists themselves who had known the October Revolution. The Bolshevik party was also physically liquidated.

For the Revolution and the International Opposition it was an immense loss. Nowhere else had there been a revolutionary party comparable to the Bolshevik party, tempered in the harsh hardships of the underground, of the revolution, of the civil war, of power. With its extermination all the communist revolutionary traditions perish. The disappearance of the Russian leftist opponents was, in particular, an irremediable loss, for they were the bearers until the end of the revolutionary, theoretical and organizational capital amassed over many years. The [Bolshevik] communist continuity was practically taken over by Trotsky alone.

Jacques Roussel. “Les enfants du prophète”

Everything that can be expected from a militant

Marguerite and Alfred Rosmer with Nataia Sedova and Trotski in Taxco, 1939, when the Rosmers manage to bring them his grandson, Esteban Volkov, Siova, the only survivor of all their descendants, safe and sound

The bourgeois historiography since the 19th century tries to reduce political and social movements to the result of the will of great men. It is the same as stalinism does when it reduces the Russian revolution to a plan well drawn up by Lenin, executed by a militarily disciplined party and an obedient proletariat. Obviously no such thing happened. In the end, both end up reducing the revolution to a vulgar coup d’état and leaving the social classes out of the story. A consequence of this reactionary ideology, dear to those who pretend to narrate history as the result of bureaucratic dynamics in the apparatuses of power, was the invention of the term Trotskyism. Its aim was obviously to reduce the movement that was trying to confront the counter-revolution to one of its leaders, thus denying it any political meaning.

As it happened so many times in history, the term was adopted by its victims in the face of the enormous number of defamations and crimes with which the counter-revolution accused them. But it never ceased to be a tricky and deceptive terrain. Despite its weight, Trotsky’s role in the International Communist Left, which he helped to organize and later in the Fourth International, was far from that of someone who dictated doctrine, on the contrary, his initiatives and perspectives were boycotted if not continuously confronted. One need only follow the debates between 1929 and 1940 to be certain that Trotsky was, to the very end, the militant of a worldwide movement whose framework, developments, strengths and weaknesses, shaped his theoretical work and his contribution.

Another form derived from this depoliticization of militant work through the individualization of movements into their most visible leaders, which is quite common among groups that claim to be critical Trotskyists,, is to analyze his positions one by one over the years in search of genius moments and more or less serious errors. It would be absurd to approach the figures of the great revolutionaries in this way. Of course they made mistakes and some serious ones at the time. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky… were not saints born with a saving doctrine engraved in stone. Contrasting the work of a militant with that of an infallible leader is only the other side of the most reactionary historical method: it eliminates the real movement from the perspective, the social reality and the struggles of the moment, in order to reduce great tendencies to the capacities and limitations of a leader.

It is the path which opens up the two classical strategies to defuse revolutionary criticism. The first is the fossilization and sanctification of the figures who embodied it, turning them into scarecrows floating in a historical vacuum. Thus their texts become inevitably barren holy writ. This is what reformism did with Marx, stalinism with Lenin and so-called Trotskyism after 1942 with Trotsky.

The second strategy making it possible to reduce a movement or tendency to its leader is to exonerate the leader from the political criticism of the movement, which becomes blurred, reduced to a background or a formless set of followers, replacing it with ad hominem attacks and defamation. This was, needless to say, stalinism’s strategy against the Communist Left first, and against the first Fourth International later. The persecuted one, in fact, was never Trotsky individually, as the most sympathetic press keeps telling us, including the so-called trotskyist press, the persecuted one was the movement, the one Trotsky’s efforts and contributions were trying to strengthen. It is a mistake to interpret his murder only as the conclusion of a long and violent stage of harassment, defamation and ad hominem attacks. It is true that it was preceded by the largest campaign of slander and disinformation in history so far. But in reality, that was just ideological disguise. His assassination was part of the continuous slaughter of revolutionary militants initiated by stalinism in Russia, physically liquidating the Bolshevik party, and which it later projected all over the world, especially after the Spanish Revolution, where it played for the first time the role of open organizer of the counterrevolution outside Russia, leaving a trail of corpses of communist militants in its wake.

Natalia Sedova and Lev Davidovich

Trotsky’s murder was far from an isolated event or something personal. Even in his death Trotsky was nothing but a militant bearing the consequences of his militancy. As such, the way of understanding his figure cannot be a substitute for the political judgment of the movement of which he was a part and its positions with the more or less well-meaning exegesis of his texts or his positions one-by-one in the debates within the organization in which he was a militant. If we want to reduce ourselves to the militant Trotsky, to the concrete person, the way to approach it can only be moral. That is all an individualized analysis can aspire to. And there, by the way, Trotsky, the man, despite the immensity of what he had lived through and suffered, despite the vile murder of his own children, was an example of communist morality right up to the last minute. He gave everything that can be expected of a militant.

I was a revolutionary during my forty-three years of conscious life and for forty-two years I fought under the banners of Marxism. If I had to start all over again I would, of course, try to avoid this or that mistake, but fundamentally my life would be the same. I will die a revolutionary proletarian, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of humanity is no less ardent today, though more firm, than it was in my youth.

Natasha approaches the window and opens it from the courtyard to let more air into my room. I can see the bright strip of green grass behind the wall, the clear blue sky above and the sun shining everywhere. Life is beautiful. May future generations free it from all evil, oppression and violence and enjoy it fully. […] I reserve the right to decide for myself the time of my death. Suicide” (if that term is applicable in this case) will in no way be an expression of an outburst of despair or discouragement. Natasha and I have said more than once that it is possible to reach such a physical condition that one would be better off to interrupt one’s life or, rather, the too slow process of death…

But whatever the circumstances of my death, I will die with an unshakeable faith in the Communist future. This faith in Man and his future gives me even now a capacity for resistance that no religion can bestow.

Leon Trotsky. Testament, 1940.

The legacy

Second Congress of the Fourth International in which the break of the left occurs, Paris, 1948. From left to right: Pierre Favre (PCI France), S. Santen (RCP Holland), Pierre Frank (PCI France), Jock Haston (RCP GB), Colin de Silva (LSSP, Ceylon) and G. Munis (Spain) .

An old saying in Spanish says that of friends, God keep me safe, from enemies I will keep myself safe. The meaning applies fully to all those who claim that Trotsky’s communist morality, political work and militant drive outlived him in the Fourth International. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Fourth International, unlike its predecessors, was created in the midst of the greatest historical defeat of the working class: in 1933 Nazism finally destroyed the German workers movement, in 1936 a new Russian constitution legally dissolved the soviets, turning them into mere representations of the stalinist party, in 1937 stalinism led the counterrevolution in Spain… The world was facing a new slaughter. To found a new International from the remains of the workers movement in historical defeat only had one meaning: to raise the flag of revolutionary defeatism during the coming war and turn the new imperialist slaughter into world revolution.

The renunciation of internationalism by the leadership of the International, which had fallen into the hands of the American SWP, will precipitate from 1942 onwards the decanting of a left linked to the sections with a revolutionary experience immediately before or after the imperialist conflict (Spain, Greece, Vietnam) and to groups in Germany, France or Italy that raised revolutionary defeatism during the conflict. The leadership’s reaction to avoid being called into question for avoiding taking a stand on the most basic internationalism in order to avoid going to jail in the U.S. will be a rapid ideological entrenchment. The leadership, quickly purging itself of the left, will turn previous temporary tactical positions, such as the unconditional defense of the USSR into articles of faith. They will do so, of course, in the name of the words of a Trotsky who had underlined the precarious and temporary character of these positions. As a result they would turn at a swift pace towards anti-fascism and the popular fronts, true ideologies of recruitment for the imperialist slaughter.

After a lengthy bureaucratic battle to avoid a left majority in the Second Congress, which was delayed until 1948, the break-up became inevitable. The apparatus inherited by the Fourth International, matrix of what has been called Trotskyism since the end of the 1940s, became a reactionary parody, a parody of stalinism that went so far as to assert that the contradiction between capital-bourgeoisie and proletariat had been replaced as the main contradiction of the system by the imperialist contradiction between the Stalinist USSR and the USA. From then on, the united front becomes an unnatural excuse for an aberrant support of stalinists, social democrats and nationalists of all stripes. And from a common error of the generation that had lived the Second International – to think that state property was a material basis for socialism – they leapt to the identification between state property and socialism, or what is the same, to sell state capitalism as socialism. In short, in record time the Fourth International moved from opportunism to centrism and from there to stalinism.

It is ludicrous to think that Trotsky’s legacy, with its untamed integrity and his militant work full of theoretical contributions, can even resemble that trotskostalinism that kept the apparatus only to later burst into a thousand groups, each of them less internationalist than the others. A Trotskyism that today embraces one national flag or another in order to recruit workers to go to war in Syria, Libya or Ukraine, which unconditionally defends -against the workers- repressive and failed state capitalisms in Cuba or Venezuela, and which shamelessly presents itself as the left wing of Argentine Peronism, of Anglo-Saxon identitarianism, or of the most pathetic podemism and petty-bourgeois nationalisms in Spain.

Marx, frightened by the terms in which the polemics of the supposed French marxists of his old age, like Guesde, took place, affirmed that the only thing I can say with certainty about myself is that I am not a marxist. Trotsky today could only look with horror at his so-called epigones. The last thing he would be is a Trotskyist. And precisely because of this, in the face of the enemies and slanderers of the great militant, eighty years after his assassination we can only adhere to the words of G. Munis:

I formally broke with the Fourth International in 1948 -as Natalia Sedova Trotsky did later- but that will not prevent me from raising my hand as a Trotskyist against the police slanderers of Moscow or Beijing.

G. Munis, 1972

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