The Struggle Against the Bureaucracy Until his Assassination

We publish the transcript of the final chapter of the Leon Trotsky series carried out by our comrade Alejandro Bodart on International Panorama, the program of the International Socialist League.

August 21 marked the 80th anniversary of the assassination of Leon Trotsky. The ISL carried out a great rally in homage, which we invite you to see on our website. Today we present the last report of our commemorative cycle of his life and work.

One of the big questions we face as socialists is why the Russian Revolution degenerated. How can we explain that the most important triumph of the world´s working class, which created the first workers’ state in history, became a horrible Stalinist dictatorship and ended decades later in the restoration of capitalism.

The two main leaders of the revolution, Lenin and Trotsky, were absolutely clear on one issue: that the revolution could not survive in one country, and even less in an economically backward one like Russia. That is why, as we said in the previous installment, they invested so much in building the Third International and intervening in the revolutions that shook all of Europe after the First World War.

Unfortunately, these revolutions failed, mainly due to inexperience and political mistakes by the leadership of the young German Communist Party.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, the German revolutionaries, including Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, never understood the strategic importance of beginning to organize the revolutionaries within the Social Democratic Parties and the Second International, which were led by reformists who had adapted to the Bourgeois State and its institutions. When the reformist leaders betrayed the working class in 1914 by supporting the Imperialist War and revolutionaries had to split, they were scattered, disorganized and instead of undertaking the task of building a party like the one proposed by Lenin they decided to join the Independent Social Democratic Party, founded by the centrist Karl Kautsky, as a left wing.

These vacillations of the revolutionaries led to the founding of the German Communist Party in December 1918, almost at the same time as the situation was accelerating leading up to the outbreak of the first German revolution in 1919. Its leadership, young and inexperienced, made many mistakes and was massacred by the counterrevolution of the social democratic government that had just come to power. The assassinations of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and others further weakened the German Communists, who despite building a mass party in a short time, had a weak leadership and little self-confidence. These vacillations and mistakes also led to the opportunity for the second German revolution in 1923 being lost.

With the retreat that followed, Soviet Russia was isolated.

At the same time, in the young Soviet Union the Red Army commanded by Trotsky emerged victorious from the civil war against the counterrevolutionary forces and imperialist armies, but at a very high cost. The country was devastated and its economy in a state of total collapse. They had come out of the world war, a year of revolution, three more of civil war. The industry was at 20% of the pre-war levels of production. Half of the working class had returned to the countryside to try to survive amid widespread famine. The best of the vanguard, the most conscient, most radicalized workers, the revolutionaries, had been at the front in the civil war and many had died. Those who had not had been sucked into the administrative and political tasks of ruling the massive country. Building socialism on those foundations was completely impossible.

What to do in these difficult circumstances was a very important debate that today is perhaps not so well known. During the civil war, the Bolsheviks applied war communism, requisitioning all the production of the countryside and centralizing the entire economy in order to win the war and defend the revolution. This generated discontent in the peasantry, and an erosion of the support that it had given to the Bolshevik revolution.

To resolve the terrible shortage that remained after the civil war, the Bolshevik government implemented the NEP, the New Economic Policy, granting the peasants a limited market to sell their products in order to encourage production. This created another problem, since some peasants and commercial intermediaries began to enrich themselves, the kulaks and nepmen. To counter the power and potential push towards capitalist restoration by that sector, the Bolsheviks strengthened the state apparatus, in turn concentrating more power in the state bureaucracy. These exceptional measures were to be temporary and short-lived, but a section of the bureaucracy emerged, based in the kulaks and nepmen and led by Stalin, who sought to use them to cling to power.

Lenin recognized the danger posed by the increasing weight of the bureaucracy, and was preparing to face it, when in 1922 he suffered a series of brain strokes that would end his life in 1924. In his testament, which was made public years later, he made it clear that he was particularly concerned about the power concentrated by Stalin and recommended his removal from the leadership of the party.

The task of leading the fight against the bureaucracy fell in the hands of Trotsky. The left-wing opposition that he commanded proposed an alternative policy for the difficult situation in which the Soviet Union found itself: turn whatever resources there were towards rapid industrialization, to rebuild production and the working class; raise wages to restore worker confidence and morale; rebuild and expand Soviet and party democracy; prop up the poor peasantry against the kulaks; and above all, maintain an orientation towards world revolution.

The bureaucracy did the opposite, and launched a brutal campaign against Trotsky, reviving old debates and using direct slander, to try to show him contrary to Bolshevism and Leninism. Deep down, the bureaucracy was abandoning the strategy of world revolution and needed to discredit Trotsky, who, for the masses, was Lenin’s natural successor, and who defended the Bolshevik heritage and the strategy of world revolution that they had abandoned.

This was tragically evidenced by the Chinese revolution of 1926-27. Contrary to what the Bolsheviks had done in 1917, and contrary to the united front tactic that the first congresses of the Third International had discussed, the Soviet leadership recommended to the Chinese CP to dissolve under the command of the bourgeois nationalist forces of Chiang Kai Shek. When the workers took power in Shanghai, under the leadership of the CP, the latter ended up handing over the city to Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomingtang, who proceeded to massacre them and bury the revolution.

The left opposition fought for a revolutionary policy in China, and against the general course of the bureaucracy. But it had to face the reality of an exhausted and demoralized people. Without the pressure of a mobilized people, and using the power of the state apparatus and relying on the new privileged strata of the NEP, he unleashed a fierce persecution of the opposition, and a true counterrevolution.

1927 was a turning point. On the 10th anniversary of the October revolution, the left opposition mobilized in the official rallies with its own contingents in protest of the bureaucracy’s policies, and was brutally repressed. A week later, Trotsky was expelled from the party. The following year he would be deported to Kazakhstan and in 1929 expelled from the USSR.

To consolidate its hold on power, the Stalinist bureaucracy would end up purging and assassinating the entire leadership that made the revolution in 1917, along with thousands of Bolshevik militants. Tens of thousands were executed in the Moscow trials between 1936 and 1938 and hundreds of thousands, or millions more, would end up perishing in the famous gulags, forced labor camps.

It is important to note that, contrary to what capitalist propaganda says, Stalinism was not a continuation or logical consequence of Bolshevism, but quite the opposite. It was its denial, and Stalin had to carry out a bloody counterrevolution to bury the revolution and establish himself in power.

In fact, the Stalinist counterrevolution reversed all the achievements of the Russian revolution. It liquidated workers ‘control and every trace of workers’ democracy, even dissolving the soviets themselves. It imposed levels of exploitation and inequality that had nothing to envy from Western capitalism, with a privileged and enriched bureaucratic caste concentrating absolute power. It restored colonial rule over the oppressed peoples of the old Russian empire, even reviving the chauvinistic ideology of “Greater Russia.” He made abortion and homosexuality illegal again, and reversed all the democratic rights that the revolution had won. And he completely abandoned the strategy of world revolution, developing the theory of socialism in one country, against the most elementary principles of revolutionary Marxism.

Trotsky’s book, The Revolution Betrayed warned that the Stalinist counterrevolution, if not defeated, would lead to the restoration of capitalism in Russia, a prognosis that was tragically confirmed decades later.

In exile, Trotsky finished developing his theory of permanent revolution, precisely in opposition to and in struggle against that counterrevolutionary ideology of Stalinism, which was transforming the Third International into a counterrevolutionary instrument at the service of the diplomacy of the Soviet State.

After the defeat of the Chinese Revolution, Stalinism adopted an ultra-leftist and sectarian policy that became known as that of the Third Period. It said that the years of the Russian revolution and the post-war revolutions in Europe had been a revolutionary period, that the years after the defeat of the German revolution had been a second counter-revolutionary period, but that a third period was already opening in which the revolution was imminent.

The consequences were tragic, because in the face of the rise of fascism in Europe, the communist parties, instead of applying united front tactics with social democracy to defeat it, divided the working class, equating social democracy, which they described as social-fascist, to fascism itself. This is what allowed Hitler to come to power, despite the opposition of the majority of the working class, the Communist Party having mass influence, and several revolutionary opportunities opening up, all wasted by the Stalinist leadership.

Trotsky wrote over and over again, warning the German Communists with growing concern and despair about the seriousness of their mistakes and the danger that Hitler and fascism posed. And it was Hitler’s coming to power in Germany that finally convinced him that the Third International was beyond recovery and new revolutionary parties and the Fourth International had to be built.

Stalinism then turned, on the basis of its diplomatic needs to agree with French and English imperialism, from third-period sectarianism to Popular Front policy. He sent the communist parties to political fronts with the supposedly democratic sectors of the bourgeoisie, and where revolutions broke out, as in Spain in 1936, he prioritized those alliances.

Against Franco’s fascist coup, the peasants had taken the lands and the workers had taken the factories. But the CP made a reversal, explaining that the revolution would take place in stages, that the current stage was in alliance with the bourgeoisie against fascism, then it was necessary to return the lands and factories to avoid the risk of breaking the alliance.

Trotsky wrote profusely about the Spanish revolution and civil war, confronting Stalinist politics and trying to influence the events. He even ended up breaking with the party that was related to him, the POUM, after it entered the Popular Front government in Catalonia.

Stalinism betrayed, aborted or deviated whatever revolutionary process developed in the world over long decades. During World War II, it would go as far as directly dissolving the Third International as a gesture to its alliance with imperialism, a policy that it would consolidate after the war in the Yalta and Potsdam pacts.

Trotsky dedicated the last years of his life to oppose the counterrevolutionary policy of Stalinism in the world, and to the project that he would define as the most important work of his life: the building of the Fourth International, which would be founded in 1938.

Since he was expelled from the USSR, Trotsky began to organize the left-wing opposition on an international scale, a task that he faced in the worst circumstances. Expelled from one country to another, with his followers persecuted by the Stalinists and by the fascists, and facing the vacillations of the few revolutionaries who dared to break with the USSR, or who saw it as inappropriate to launch a new organization under those circumstances.

In fact, the main leaders of the left opposition, Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s son, and Rudolf Klement, one of his closest collaborators, were assassinated by Stalinist agents months before the founding congress of the Fourth International.

This Congress was finally carried out on the outskirts of Paris in September 1938, and it approved the famous Transitional Program, which would become one of the pillars of the revolutionary socialist struggle to this day. In it, Trotsky condenses a characterization of the decline of capitalism that the outbreak of the Second World War would confirm a year later, and that the current crisis continues to validate.

At the same time, it states that although the objective conditions for the revolution are more than mature, they are not enough without the subjective factor, without a revolutionary party to lead it. In his words, the crisis of humanity was reduced to the crisis of its revolutionary leadership.

And it proposes a new method of political intervention, which, starting from the immediate needs of the proletariat and escalating to the intermediate ones, leads it to a global confrontation with the logic of capital and bourgeois power.

Trotsky himself could not participate in the founding Congress of the IV. After being expelled from Turkey and Norway, and being denied a visa by several countries, the Mexico of Cárdenas accepted him, at the petition of the famous artists Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo, who were active in the Communist Party but were at odds with their leadership and welcomed Trotsky and his partner Natalia Sedova.

It was at his home in Coyoacán that, after several failed attacks, Stalin succeeded in assassinating Trotsky on August 20, 1940. The Catalan Ramón Mercader, a GPU agent trained specifically for the task, had infiltrated the house, posing as a sympathizer of his ideas, and knocked him down with an ice ax blow that would take the life of the great revolutionary.

Trotsky’s legacy is invaluable to today’s revolutionaries. Without his tireless work, the lessons and conclusions of a century of class struggle would have been lost. The revolutionary Marxist, Bolshevik, Leninist tradition survived through him, and we revolutionaries of our day did not have to start from scratch. This is the ultimate motive for which we vindicate the life and work of Leon Trotsky.

80 years after his assassination, Trotsky is more alive than ever and continues to stirr the same hatred and terror among the bourgeoisie, the bureaucracies and the reformists, that he did throughout his life.