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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 18, May 4, 2024

Leon Trotsky | Paul Mattick (1940)

Saturday 4 May 2024


With Leon Trotsky there passed away the last of the great leaders of Bolshevism. It was his activity during the last fifteen years that kept alive some of the original content of the Bolshevik ideology — the great weapon for transforming backward Russia into its present state-capitalistic form.

As all men are wiser in practice than in theory, so also Trotsky by his accomplishments achieves far greater importance than through his rationalizations that accompanied them. Next to Lenin, he was without doubt the greatest figure of the Russian Revolution. However, the need for leaders like Lenin and Trotsky, and the effect these leaders had, brings to light the utter helplessness of the proletarian masses to solve their own real needs in face of a merciless unripe historical situation.

The masses had to be led; but the leaders could lead only in accordance with their own necessities. The need for leadership of the kind practiced by Bolshevism finally indicates nothing else than the need to discipline and terrorize the masses, so that they may work and live in harmony with the plans of the ruling social group. This kind of leadership in itself demonstrates the existence of class relations, class politics and economics, and an irreconcilable opposition between the leaders and the led. The over-towering personality of Leon Trotsky reveals the non-proletarian character of the Bolshevik Revolution just as well as the mummified and deified Lenin in the Moscow Mausoleum.

In order that some may lead, others must be powerless. To be the vanguard of the workers, the elite has to usurp all social key positions. Like the bourgeoisie of old, the new leaders had to seize and control all means of production and destruction. To hold their control and keep it effective, the leaders must constantly strengthen themselves by bureaucratic expansion, and continually divide the ruled. Only masters can be leaders.

Trotsky was such a master. At first he was the masterly propagandist, the great and never tiring orator, establishing his leading position in the revolution. Then he became the creator and master of the Red Army, fighting against the Right and the Left, fighting for bolshevism, which he hoped to master too. But here he failed. When leaders make history, those who are led no longer count; but neither do they disappear. Trusting in the force of grand historical spectacles, Trotsky neglected to be the efficient opportunist behind the scenes of bureaucratic development that he was in the spotlight of world history.

Today, great men are no longer necessary. Modern propaganda instruments can transform any fraud into a hero, any mediocre personality into an all-comprehending genius. Propaganda actually transforms through its collective efforts any average, if not stupid, leader, like Hitler and Stalin, into a great man. The leaders become symbols of an organized, collective, and really intelligent will to maintain given social institutions. Outside of Russia, Trotsky was soon reduced to the master of a small sect of professional revolutionists and their providers. He was “the Old Man,” the indisputable authority of an artificial growth upon the political scene, destined to end in absurdity. To become the master of a Fourth International, as his adversary Stalin was master of the Third, remained the illusion with which he died.

There is here no need to re-trace Trotsky’s individual development; his autobiography suffices. Neither is it necessary to stress his many qualifications, literary and otherwise. His works, and most of all his History of the Russian Revolution, will immortalize his name as a writer and politician. But there is a real need to oppose the development of the Trotsky legend which will make out of this leader of the Russian state capitalist revolution a martyr of the international working class — a legend which must be rejected together with all other postulates and aspects of Bolshevism.

Louis Ferdinand Céline has said that revolutions should be judged twenty years later. And in doing so, he found only words of condemnation for Bolshevism. To us, however, it seems that a present-day re-evaluation of Bolshevism could well do without any kind of moralizing. In retrospect it is quite easy to see in bolshevism the beginning of a new phase of capitalist development, which was initiated by the first World War. No doubt, in 1917, Russia was the weakest link in the capitalist world structure. But the whole of capitalism in its private property form was already on the verge of stagnation. To erect and expand a workable economic system of the laissez-faire type was no longer possible. Only the force of complete centralism, of dictatorial rule over the whole of society, could guarantee the establishment of an exploitative social order capable of expanding production despite the declining world-capitalism.

There can be no doubt that the Bolshevik leaders by creating their state-capitalistic structure — which has, within twenty years, become the example for the further evolution of the whole of the capitalist world — were deeply convinced that their construction conformed to the needs and desires of their own and the world proletariat. Even when they found that they could not alter the fact that their society continued to be based on the exploitation of labour, they sought to alter the meaning of this fact by offering in excuse a theory that identified the rule of the leaders with the interests of the led. The motive force of social development in class society — the class struggle — theoretically was done away with; but practically, an authoritarian regime had to be developed masked as the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the creation of this regime, and in the attempt to camouflage it, Trotsky won most of his laurels. He rested on those laurels to the very last. It is only necessary to reflect on the paramount role which Trotsky played in the first thundering years of Bolshevik Russia to understand why he could not admit that the Bolshevik revolution was able only to change the form of capitalism but was not able to do away with the capitalistic form of exploitation. It was the shadow of that period that darkened his understanding.

In the general backwardness that prevailed in Czarist Russia, the intelligentsia had little opportunity to improve its position. The talent and capacities of the educated middle classes found no realization in this stagnating society. Later this situation found its parallel in the middle-class conditions in Italy and Germany after Versailles and in the wake of the following world crisis. In all three countries, and in both situations, the intelligentsia and large layers of the middle classes became politicized and counter-poised to the declining economic system. In the search for ideologies useful as weapons, and in the search for allies, all had to appeal to the proletarian layer of society, and to all other dissatisfied elements. The leadership of the Bolshevik as well as of the fascist movements was not proletarian, but middle class: the result of the frustration of intellectuals under conditions of economic stagnation and atrophy.

In Russia, before 1917, a revolutionary ideology was developed with the help of western socialism — with Marxism. But the ideology served only the act of revolution, nothing more. It had to be altered continuously and re-fitted to serve the developing needs of the state-capitalist revolution and its profiteers. Finally, this ideology lost all connection with reality and served as religion, a weapon to maintain the new ruling class.

With this ideology, the Russian intelligentsia, supported by ambitious workers, were able to seize power and to hold it because of the disintegration of Czarist society, the wide social gap between peasants and workers, the undeveloped proletarian consciousness, and the general weakness of international capitalism after the war. Coming to power with the help of a Russified Marxian ideology, Trotsky, after he lost power, had no choice but to maintain the revolutionary ideology in its original form against the degeneration of Marxism indulged in by the Stalinists. He could afford this luxury, for he had escaped the iron consequences of the social system he had helped to bring about. Now he could lead a life of dignity, that is, a life of opposition. But had he suddenly been brought back to power, his actions could have been none other than those of Stalin’s which he so despised. After all, the latter is himself no more than the creature of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s policies. As a matter of fact, “Stalinists” as a particular type are, so long as they are controllable, just that type of men which leaders like Lenin and Trotsky need and love most. But sometimes the worm turns. Those Bolshevik underlings elevated into power positions understand to the fullest that the only insurance for security lies in imprisonment, exile, and murder.

In 1925 oppressive methods were not far enough advanced to secure absolute power for the great leader. The dictatorial instruments were still hampered by the traditions of democratic capitalism. Leadership remained after Lenin’s death; there was not yet the Leader. Though Trotsky was forced into exile, the unripeness of the authoritarian form of government spared his life for fifteen years. Soon both old and new oppositions to Stalin’s rule could easily be destroyed. Hitler’s overwhelming success in the “night of the long knives,” when he killed off with one bold stroke the whole of the effective opposition against him, showed Stalin the way to handle his own problems. Whoever was suspected of having at one time or another entertained ideas unpleasant to Stalin’s taste and absolute rule, whoever because of his critical capacities was suspected of being able in the future to reach the willing ears of the underdogs and disappointed bureaucrats, was eliminated. This was done not in the Nibelungen manner in which the German fascists got rid of Roehm, Strasser and their following, but in the hidden, scheming, cynical manner of the Moscow Trials, to exploit even the death of the potential oppositionists for the greater glory of the all-embracing and beloved leader, Stalin. The applause of those taking the offices emptied by the murdered was assured. To make the broad masses happily accept the miserable end of the “old Bolsheviks” was merely a job for the minister of propaganda. Thus the whole of Russia, not only the leading bureaucratic group, finished off the “traitors to the fatherland of the workers.”

Though secretly celebrating Trotsky’s death at studio parties, the defenders of Stalinism, affecting naïveté, will ask why Stalin should be interested in doing away with Trotsky. After all, what harm could Trotsky do to the mighty Stalin and his great Russia? However; a bureaucracy capable of destroying thousands of books because they contain Trotsky’s name, re-writing and again re-writing history to erase every accomplishment of the murdered opposition, a bureaucracy able to stage the Moscow Trials, is certainly also capable of hiring a murderer, or finding a volunteer to silence the one discordant voice in an otherwise perfect harmony of praise for the new ruling class in Russia. The self-exalting identification with his leader of the last pariah within the Communist Party, the idiotic fanaticism displayed by these people when the mirror of truth is held before their eyes, permits no surprise at Trotsky’s murder. It is surprising only that he was not murdered sooner. To understand the assassination of Trotsky, it is only necessary to look at the mechanism and the spirit of any Bolshevik organization, Trotsky’s included.

What harm could Trotsky do? Precisely because he was not out to harm his Russia and his workers’ state was he so intensely hated by the ruling Bolshevik bureaucracy. For the very reason that the Trotskyites in countries where they had a foothold were not out to change in the least the party instrument devised by Lenin, that their spirit remained the spirit of Bolshevism, they were hated by the proprietors of the separate Communist Parties.

The swift steps of history make possible any apparent impossibility. Russia is not immune to the vast changes the present world experiences. In a tottering world, all governments become insecure. No one knows where the hurricane will strike next. Each one has to reckon with all eventualities. Because Trotsky insisted on defending the heritage of 1917, because he remained the Bolshevik who saw in state capitalism the basis for socialism and in the rule of the party the rule of the workers, because he wanted nothing but the replacement of Stalin and the Stalin-supporting bureaucracy, he was really dangerous to the latter.

That he had other arguments, such as that of the “permanent revolution” against the slogan of “socialism in one country,” etc., is rather meaningless, because the permanence of the revolution as well as the isolation of Russia, is dependent not upon slogans and political decisions, but on realities over which even the most powerful party has no control. Such arguments serve only to disguise the quite ordinary interests for which political parties struggle.

It was the non-revolutionary character of Trotsky’s policies with regard to the Russian scene that made him so dangerous. The Russian bureaucracy knows quite well that the present world situation is not given to revolutionary changes in the interests of the world proletariat. Dictators and bureaucrats think in terms of dictatorship and bureaucracy. It is pretenders to the throne they fear, not the rabble of the street. Napoleon found it easy to control any insurrectionary crowd; he found it far more difficult to deal with the machinations of Fouché and Talleyrand. A Trotsky, living, could be recalled with the help of the lower layers of the Russian bureaucracy whenever an opportune moment arose. The chance to replace Stalin, to triumph finally, depended on Trotsky’s restricting his criticism to Stalin’s individual, brutal moroseness, to the sickening, newly-rich attitudes of the Stalin satellites. He realized that he could return to power only with the help of the greater part of the bureaucracy, that he could take his seat in the Kremlin again only in the wake of a palace revolution, or a successful Roehm putsch. He was too much of a realist — despite all the convenient mysticism of his political program — not to realize the silliness of an appeal to the Russian workers, those workers who must have learned by now to see in their new masters their new exploiters, and to tolerate them out of fear and necessity. Not to tolerate, and not to approve the new situation means to surrender the chance to improve one’s own situation; and as long as Russian economy is expanding, individual ambitions and individual apologia will rule individuals. The suckers make the best of a situation which they feel is beyond their power to alter. Precisely because Trotsky was not a revolutionary, but merely a competitor for leadership under existing Russian conditions — ever ready to follow the call of a bureaucracy in re-organization should a national crises demand the abdication of Stalin — he became increasingly more dangerous to the present ruling clique engaged, as it is, in new, vast imperialistic adventures. Trotsky’s murder is one of the many consequences of the re-birth of Russian imperialism.

Today Bolshevism stands revealed as the initial phase of a great movement which, expected to perpetuate capitalistic exploitation, is slowly but surely embracing the whole world and changing the no longer functioning private property economy into greater state capitalistic units. The rule of the Bolshevist commissar finds its logical conclusion in fascistic dictatorships spreading over the globe. Just as little as Lenin and Trotsky knew what they were actually doing when they were fighting for socialism, just as little do Hitler and Mussolini know today what they are doing in fighting for a greater Germany and the Roman Empire. In the world as it is, there is a wide difference between what men want to do, and what they are actually doing. Men, however great, are very small before history, which steps beyond them and surprises them always anew with the results of their own surprising schemes.

In 1917, Trotsky knew as little as we ourselves knew that the Bolshevik revolution would have to end in an international fascistic movement and in the preparation and execution of another world war. If he had known the trend of development, he would either have been murdered twenty years ago, or today he would occupy Stalin’s place. As it is, he ended as a victim of the fascist counter-revolution against the international working class and the peace of the world.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that Stalin murdered Trotsky, despite the displacement of all forms of Bolshevism by fascism, a final evaluation of Trotsky’s historical role will have to place him in line with Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler as one of the great leaders of a world-wide movement attempting, knowingly and unknowingly, to prolong the capitalist exploitation system with methods first devised by bolshevism, then completed by German fascism, and finally glorified in the general butchery which we are now experiencing. After that — the labour movement may begin.

(From: Living Marxism, Fall 1940
Transcribed: by Adam Buick;

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