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Why Trotskyism?

Why is Trotskyism still relevant today? We reflect on the anniversary of his assassination.

Jimena Vergara

August 25, 2018
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August 21 was the 79th anniversary of the murder of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. The anniversary took place at a historical moment when there are sufficient objective conditions for a revolution. The capitalist crisis, the inter-imperialist contradictions, the resurgence of right-wing nationalism led by Donald Trump and the growing interest in socialist ideas in imperialist countries like the United States demonstrate that we live in a world ripe for revolution. The question today is, why Trotskyism?

Trotsky’s role in the October Revolution and his revolutionary practice have been slandered and ignored throughout his life and after his death. Stalinism, in its desire to destroy any opposition within the Soviet Union, tried to erase the heritage of Bolshevism, calling the most prominent leaders and militants of the October Revolution “Trotskyists.” Stalinists persecuted, deported, assassinated and silenced all dissent inside and outside the USSR. To remove all the revolutionary edge from Lenin’s legacy, they made Lenin a central figure of the country’s state ideology, erecting statues and celebrating him. Stone and concrete hid the true teachings of the author of the “April Theses.” Trotsky, on the other hand, was erased from history; hundreds of documents were falsified, and Lenin’s last testament was banned in the USSR. And the inaccuracies persist today: just a few years ago, historian Robert Service’s 2009 biography of Trotsky was re-published—a text full of lies, misrepresentations, and gross errors about the head of the Red Army.

Thus, an interest in Trotskyism is not just for those of us who are revolutionaries in the tradition of Trotsky. An accurate account of Trotsky’s role and impact is also about preserving history more generally and enacting historical reparations.

Why were Trotsky and supposed “Trotskyists” persecuted? Why did that persecution reach Mexico City, where Trotsky was murdered? Why did that persecution include the murder of Trotsky’s children?

Leninist Bolsheviks, as they called themselves, embodied the lessons of the October Revolution and set up the only organized political current that proposed an alternative against bureaucratized Soviet Russia and the Communist Party. They did so first through the Left Opposition and later by organizing the movement for the Fourth International.

It was Trotsky who fought tooth and nail against the reactionary theory of socialism in a single country—the ideological cover of bureaucratic conservatism. It was Trotsky who defended a workers’ democracy and a Soviet multiparty system, and promoted international revolution as a safeguard of the Soviet Union itself and as a central task of communism. It was Trotsky who proposed the program of political revolution and the economic and political struggle against the parasitic bureaucracy. Stalinism could lock up the so-called Trotskyists in concentration camps, kill their leaders or put them to death, but in the end, it could not erase the ideas of the heirs of the Soviet revolution.

Although Trotsky’s thought is undeniably relevant today, it is necessary to contextualize his ideas. We cannot re-create Trotsky’s ideas dogmatically because doing so would contradict his own historical materialist method. His way of approaching reality was deeply holistic, flexible, dialectical and intransigent in pursuing the revolutionary objectives of the working class.

Trotsky belonged to the third generation of the classical Marxists. Together with Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, he was one of the most brilliant and lucid representatives of Marxism. This generation, according to historian Perry Anderson, had an essential characteristic that reflected the thought of the founders of Marxism: the link between theory and practice. Marx and Engels had to theorize and organize at a time when bourgeois revolutions were still possible and the working class was building its first organizations, political ideas and struggles. However, Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg lived in a moment of crises, wars and revolutions. They employed the arsenal provided by their teachers in the historical moment in which they lived, organizing for the proletarian revolution.

Trotsky and Lenin also understood that capitalism in its imperialist phase brought forth deeply convulsive forces, giving rise to a period of great wars, great economic cataclysms and, of course, revolutionary processes. They understood that it was necessary to leave behind the legacy of those obsessed with tactics during times of peace and resort instead to strategy—the art of organizing isolated operations to win the war. And winning the war for the socialists meant destroying capitalism and erecting another form of social organization at the service of the great majorities. With the revolution of 1905 in Russia, when the workers of Petrograd created their own forms of democratic organization (the soviets), it was imperative to think about how the proletariat would take power.

That is why the Marxists of that time introduced the difference between strategies and tactics to Marxist thought, as suggested by Trotsky himself:

“Prior to the war we spoke only of the tactics of the proletarian party; this conception conformed adequately enough to the then prevailing trade union, parliamentary methods which did not transcend the limits of the day-to-day demands and tasks. By the conception of tactics is understood the system of measures that serves a single current task or a single branch of the class struggle.” To Trotsky, Revolutionary strategy, on the contrary, embraces a combined system of actions which by their association, consistency, and growth must lead the proletariat to the conquest of power.”

Political action and Marxist theory make up an indivisible union, characterized by the concrete task of proletarian revolution. Revolutionary Marxism is fundamentally centered around strategy, and Trotsky, without a doubt, is one of its primary thinkers. For us, Marxism is the practical and theoretical synthesis of the experiences of the proletariat over the past 150 years. In its practical and contemporary manifestation, this means struggling to take power and to construct transitional revolutionary states that are democratically organized. These struggles put before us the great tasks of expropriating the capitalists and putting the means of production and the wealth of society in the hands of the people, with the aim of satisfying their social needs.

But for Trotsky, and for the Marxists of today, the objective is not only to take power. The proletarian state is a means for the development of the international socialist revolution. It creates the conditions to build Communism on a global scale, destroying social classes and the state itself.

The next task is to destroy the toxic social relations built by capitalism and to create new ones. Today, 200 monopolies suck up all the wealth that is produced globally. We throw away over 1 billion tons of edible food every year while millions of people struggle with food insecurity and famine around the world. Capitalist narratives scare us into believing that the earth cannot support its growing population when, in reality, these monopolies produce enough food to sustain everyone in the world several times over.

In this imperialist stage of capitalist development, our task is that of preparing for the coming insurrection, the seizure of power and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Thus, it is necessary build the organization that can take up these tasks, an organization built to prepare itself for revolution. On the one hand, the October Revolution was made possible by the Bolshevik party, a revolutionary party rooted in the working class and educated in Marxist theory and class struggle. On the other hand, the absence of a strong communist party in Germany prevented the most powerful proletariat in Europe from following the path of the Russian workers. Today, although Marxism is organizationally weak, the pressing task is to link Marxist thought to the combative youth and the working class, by building revolutionary organizations. Although we still have a long way to go before an insurrection, we should consider every struggle, however small, as a school of war to prepare us for those decisive revolutionary moments.

The party is not separate from the conscious action of the proletariat; it is the workers who move the fundamental strings of the capitalist economy in industry, manufacturing, services, communications, ports and transport. The working class is the key to paralyzing the capitalist state and to breaking its spine. Working-class methods of struggle, such as the strike, are fundamental. Yet it is not enough to fight in working-class struggles. Workers must also fight for political independence, breaking with bourgeois leaders—capitalist and reformist politicians, as well as bureaucratic union leaders who support the capitalists.

Independent working-class struggle is the key to building a new type of power and a new type of society based on workers’ democracy. Soviets, a manifestation of the workers’ United Front, are organs of direct working-class democracy and the foundation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The party has a place in participating in soviets and, in the decisive moment, in pushing the working class to take power, moving the soviets from defending the working class to destroying the capitalist state.

Stalinism immensely degraded Marxism and erased the revolutionary thought of Lenin and Trotsky. Without Trotsky, the revolutionary tradition of Marxism would be totally eclipsed by the horrors of Stalinism. Marxism after World War II lived in the shadow of Stalinism, losing its connection with practice and for many, becoming merely academic thought. During the revolutionary upsurges that shook the world during the late 1960s, Marxist ideas once again become a part of the consciousness of youth and sectors of workers. Yet capitalism managed to emerge from the crisis, becoming stronger after the fall of the Soviet Union and imposing neoliberalism on a global scale.

Neoliberalism created a “common sense” notion, which even convinced most of the left that it was no longer possible to destroy capitalism. The best one can do, according to some leftists today, is humanize it, give it a less aggressive face and temper monopoly power. It is impossible to organize a revolution, and capitalism is supposedly here for good. But we think that to renounce the struggle for a revolution is to renounce the struggle to end human misery and exploitation and fulfill every aspiration of the great majority of society. To renounce organizing for revolution is to act in the service of the profits of a parasitic minority that hoards the great wealth produced by the working class. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the workers’ states of Eastern Europe, the idea that there is no possible alternative has become further entrenched. In Russia, the consequences of the capitalist restoration have been disastrous: did the capitalist restoration bring more democracy for the Russian masses, as pro-capitalist ideologies proclaimed? Absolutely not.

That is why our aim to organize is based on the revolutionary legacy of Trotsky, knowing that the new economic, political and social phenomena will bring about new societal crises.

It is impossible to understand Trotsky if we do not understand that for him, the formation of a revolutionary party implies errors, successes, advances, setbacks and the conquest of positions– from union leadership to legislative seats. All victories, from the triumph of a strike to the seizure of power in a country, are the means to prepare or promote socialist revolution. Therefore, to understand Trotsky is to understand his work in the light of his political practice throughout his life. In Petrograd in 1917, he helped create the first workers state in history, and he advised leaders in Germany in 1923 and in Barcelona in 1937. In both cases he pushed for the seizure of power by the working class, but this was foiled by an inexperienced leadership in Germany and crushed by counterrevolutionary Stalinism in Spain. While hopping from one country to another, seeking exile and safety from both the capitalists and Stalinists, he theorized about and supported the fight against both fascism and Stalinism. Despite the slander against him, he put his energy toward building a revolutionary organization. It is in these historical moments that we can understand the breadth of Trotsky’s revolutionary legacy.

Let’s hope that the growing interest in socialist ideas at the international level, and in particular in the United States, will bring today’s youth—who know that capitalism has nothing to offer—closer to Trotsky’s theory and practice, rejecting the notion that communism means a lack of democracy and the continuation of oppression and economic misery.

As Trotsky wrote in his last days, “I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth. Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.”

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Jimena Vergara

Jimena is an author of the collection "Mexico en Llamas" and lives and works in New York City.

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