Leon Trotsky and the battle for democracy in the USSR

May 8, 2016

Leon Trotsky
By Paul Le Blanc
Reaktion Books, 2015
224 pp, $39.99
Trotsky & the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy
By Thomas M. Twiss
Brill, 2014
502 pp., $205.00

Leon Trotsky was one of the central leaders of the Russian Revolution. As the organiser and Commissar of the Red Army that saved the Soviet power and as the leading light of the struggle against Stalinism, he is surely one of the great heroic — and tragic — figures of the 20th century.

Taken together, these two books give insight into the major theoretical dilemma that emerged from the Russian experience: how a successful revolution could degenerate into a parody of workers' democracy to the point of becoming a murderous dictatorship.

Because Trotsky's revolutionary integrity remained untarnished after his murder in 1940 at the hands of a Stalinist assassin, it is easy to fall into a deification of his work — something that competing Trotskyist sects have delighted in doing.

Paul Le Blanc steers clear of those rocks in his very fine, short biography. He demonstrates a very clear-eyed and measured approach, combined with an unqualified opposition to Stalinist tyranny.

He writes of Trotsky's life together with the full gamut of his relationships — including sexual, Trotsky was no paragon of bourgeois family virtue — and both critiques and defends his legacy.

Trotsky was often accused of arrogance, which Le Blanc deals with fairly. However, despite his personal failings, Trotsky genuinely demanded honesty and dissent from his comrades, not the spiritual desert that Stalin created.

Given Trotsky's epic achievements as both a revolutionary leader and writer, it might come as something of a surprise that Le Blanc concentrates his attention on Trotsky's work in the period after his fall from power — his time of exile when he laboured to create the Fourth International.

Le Blanc writes that Trotsky remained true to “the ideals that animated his entire life”.

He “followed a trajectory that took him out of the center of power. This was the doomed but determined fighter who sought to defend and explain the relevance of the heroic best that was in the early Communist tradition.”

Trotsky regarded the last period of his life, where he battled to keep revolutionary Marxism alive, as his most important work. This was the time when he analysed fascism and tried to influence politics during the Great Depression while responding to Stalin's Moscow trials — at which he was the chief defendant in absentia.

He also intervened from afar in the Spanish Civil War and other events leading to World War II.

His fundamental disagreement with Stalin was over how best to defend the USSR against capitalist encirclement. At the theoretical level, it boiled down to their two divergent concepts — Trotsky's concept of “permanent revolution” versus Joseph Stalin's insistence on building “socialism in one country” (the already existing USSR).

Behind those two theories were two totally different understandings of working class democracy and how capitalism operates in a globalised world.

Should the encircled Soviet Union have depended on internal workers' democracy to build its state or on a specialised bureaucracy? Should it attempt to make class peace with one or other imperialist powers, even the most repugnant, to secure its own position?

This is where Thomas Twiss's book dives in deep. Like Le Blanc, Twiss is both sympathetic to Trotsky and uncompromising in appraising his strengths and weaknesses. But where Le Blanc uses a rather broad narrative brush, Twiss is microscopic.

Twiss follows Trotsky's thinking from the first years of the Bolshevik Revolution through the internal faction fights of the 1920s and the show trials in the 1930s up to his demise.

This is an exacting history that covers the development of Trotsky's ideas in relation to his political battles.

He explains how Trotsky's perceptions of political developments both blinkered and illuminated his evolving theoretical understandings. In turn, Trotsky's theories shaped his political stands — both for good and for ill.

The Bolsheviks confidently expected that popular sovereignty would be ensured by some fairly simple organisational structures — starting with state power founded on workers' soviets and peasants' organisations.

After that, the danger of a bureaucracy forming would be warded off by replacing the standing army with a militia, eradicating the division between state executive and legislative functions, having the right of recall of all elected officials, and regulating officials' salaries to the level of workers' wages.

However, soon after the revolution, many within the Bolshevik Party, including Trotsky and Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, were discussing Soviet bureaucracy as a growing problem. In time, the Soviet Union became synonymous with anti-democratic bureaucracy, mass murder of revolutionaries and the cult of personality around Stalin — the chief of the bureaucracy.

Trotsky's name, on the other hand, became synonymous with the most developed analysis of, and opposition to, the revolution's bureaucratic degeneration. Yet, as Twiss demonstrates, his understanding did not develop in a straight line.

As he grappled with the question, Trotsky was guided by aspects of classical Marxist thinking as well as the conjunctural issues confronting the Revolution. He also engaged with and debated competing analyses that emerged in and around the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Far from being a mystical prophet, Trotsky was fully human in this work. There were many hesitations and twists in his thinking, which can be divided into three distinct phases.

During the civil war and the first years of the New Economic Program, he identified bureaucracy as the cause of inefficiency throughout the economy — but most especially in the Red Army supply chain. That is, he saw it as a technical question and was quick to come up with technical solutions that often rode rough-shod over democracy.

However, by 1923, just five years after the revolution, in the second phase of his thinking, he became worried by the growing divergence of the state and party apparatuses from democratic control and the influence of alien class forces.

From 1926 onwards, he deepened his appreciation of the roots of the bureaucracy and the danger it presented to the revolution.

But it was only after the defeat of the German working class by the Nazis — in no small part due to the sectarian line imposed on German communists by Stalin — that Trotsky came to see the bureaucracy as a distinct social formation with its own interests.

While it did not terminate all the achievements of the Russian Revolution, it had attained a high degree of autonomy from all Soviet social classes.

Trotsky referred to the Soviet reality as “a contradictory society”. He hoped for the restoration of proletarian democracy and feared the eventual restoration of capitalism.

His vision of workers' democracy included freedom of speech and genuine elections. He called for the restoration of democracy within the Bolshevik party and for the legalisation of other workers' parties to participate in reinvigorated soviets (worker and peasant councils).

While Trotsky amplified this theory up until his death, he did not alter it.

Meanwhile, Stalin began a mad purge within the USSR using show trials to slander all alternative Bolshevik leaders — especially Trotsky — and murdering tens of thousands of loyal Party members. This paved the way for possibly his most notorious betrayal: the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty, which opened the gates to the mass slaughter of World War II.

Both books offer useful overviews and insights into Trotsky's thinking and struggles — in battles that had a profound impact on the course of the 20th century.

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