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A book that makes his ideas relevant for today's struggles
Trotsky and the fight for socialism

July 18, 2003 | Page 8

LEE SUSTAR reviews Haymarket Books' edition of Duncan Hallas' Trotsky's Marxism and Other Essays.

FOR THE past 75 years, the genuine revolutionary socialist tradition has been marginalized--a process that began with the expulsion of Leon Trotsky and his followers from Communist Parties around the world. During those years, socialism became identified with the bureaucratic police states of the old USSR and its allies--an idea that still persists more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For that reason alone, the republication of Duncan Hallas' Trotsky's Marxism is important. The main body of the book, first published in 1979 on the centenary of Trotsky's birth, is not a biographical study, like the multi-volume works by Isaac Deutscher and Tony Cliff. Rather, Hallas' book serves as an analytical summary--and critique--of Trotsky's theoretical and political legacy.

This is no dry academic commentary. Hallas, who died in 2002 at the age of 77, was a lifelong revolutionary and a leading member of the British International Socialists (today known as the Socialist Workers Party).Hallas' aim was to generalize from Trotsky's tremendous contributions and provide a Marxist theoretical and political method to be used by revolutionaries today.

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HALLAS' ACCOUNT begins with a brief account of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917--and an overview of Trotsky's distinctive perspective on the upheaval. Virtually every other socialist in Russia--including Lenin--saw the coming revolution as democratic and capitalist, i.e., bourgeois. But Trotsky, along with the Russian Marxist Parvus, argued that workers would necessarily play the leading role and take power directly.

Trotsky argued that the development of the world economy had given Russia a peculiar shape--an overwhelmingly rural population, but a modern industrial working class, concentrated in huge, state-of-the-art factories in St. Petersburg and Moscow that were intimately linked to the capitalist world economy. Hallas sums up Trotsky's theory, known as permanent revolution: "The uneven development of capitalism leads to a combined development in which backward Russia becomes, temporarily, the vanguard of an international socialist revolution."

Trotsky--who served as head of the St. Petersburg workers' council, or soviet, in both 1905 and 1917--joined Lenin's Bolshevik Party months before the October 1917 revolution--and his perspective became that of the Bolshevik Party.

If Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution was confirmed positively in Russia, it received a negative confirmation a decade later in China. There, under the direction of Moscow--by then increasingly in Stalin's grip-- the Chinese bourgeois nationalist party KMT, led by Chiang Kai-shek, was admitted to the Communist International as a "sympathizing party."

Chinese Communists were ordered to follow Chiang's lead on the expectation that the Chinese Revolution would, because of its undeveloped economy, be bourgeois-democratic and not socialist. In fact, Chiang slaughtered his supposed allies in the Communist Party in 1927 rather than allow a victorious workers' uprising in Shanghai--a tragedy that Trotsky anticipated.

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STILL, TROTSKY'S theory had a shortcoming--an expectation that anti-colonial and nationalist revolutions in the developing countries would necessarily either "grow over" into workers' revolutions or be crushed by the forces of imperialism. A few years after Trotsky's murder in exile by a Stalinist agent in 1940, revolutions in the former colonies took a very different direction.

Instead of workers, small groups of nationalist intelligentsia took power--in countries like China, Cuba and others--through peasant and popular military uprisings in which the working class played little or no role. The permanent revolution was, in Tony Cliff's formulation, deflected. Many of these regimes called themselves socialist and were led by Communist Parties, but the model was the bureaucratic dictatorship of Stalin's Russia, not the democratic workers' councils of 1917.

The Chinese revolution--along with the takeover of Eastern Europe by the USSR's army after the Second World War--put Stalinism in control of more than one-third of the world's population. This presented a dilemma for Trotsky's followers, who had accepted his view that Stalinism was a counterrevolutionary force.

In the 1930s, Trotsky argued that a "river of blood" separated Stalinism from Bolshevism--but nevertheless maintained that the USSR was a "workers' state," albeit degenerated, because the means of production, and virtually the entire economy, was owned by the state. Therefore, what was needed in Russia, Trotsky argued, was a political, not a social revolution.

The contradictions in Trotsky's view became apparent after Eastern Europe was assimilated into Moscow's empire--and took on the same bureaucratic, state-run social and economic structure as the USSR. "The truth was that it was no longer possible to maintain both the Marxist-Leninist theory of the state and proletarian revolution and Trotsky's theory that the USSR was still, in some sense, a workers' longer possible, that is, unless the relevant facts were ignored," Hallas wrote.

Indeed, the question of what attitude to take towards Stalinism was the key factor in the many splits in the Trotskyist movement. Hallas puts forward a different analysis, one developed in Tony Cliff's State Capitalism in Russia, originally written in the late 1940s.

Faced with economic collapse and isolation after the revolution, the state in the USSR acted as a collective capitalist class, ruled by Stalin's dictatorship and driven by military competition. This drove Moscow to replicate all the horrors of industrialization seen in the 19th century in Europe and the U.S. The capitalist nature of the USSR and its allies became clear with the collapse of Stalinism in 1989-91, when yesterday's Communist Party bureaucrats became today's corporate executives.

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IF TROTSKY'S analysis of Russia was proved wrong, his perspectives for Western countries disoriented his followers as well. He expected the Great Depression of the 1930s to continue--and the Second World War to trigger a wave of revolutionary crises in Western countries.

Trotsky's 1938 document, known as the Transitional Program, set out a series of demands to mobilize the working class and propel the tiny forces of Trotskyism into a leading role. This perspective, which served as the founding document of Trotsky's Fourth International, was based more on hope than realistic assessment--a "desperate gamble" in Hallas' words--and the onset of the long postwar economic boom made most of the demands irrelevant. Nevertheless, some Trotskyist political tendencies still treated the 1938 program as an article of "quasi-religious faith," as Hallas put it.

Vastly more important are Trotsky's contributions to revolutionary strategy and tactics made earlier in the 1930s--"a veritable treasure house," Hallas wrote. Hallas assessed Trotsky's writings on the need for a workers' united front to stop the Nazis: "The brilliance and cogency of his works on the German crisis have rarely been equaled, and never excelled, by any Marxist."

Moreover, Trotsky's "writings of this period take up and refute an extraordinary range of pseudo-Marxist arguments and, at the same time, expound with exceptional clarity the 'highest expression of proletarian strategy.'" The German Communist Party's sectarian refusal to bloc with the Social Democratic Party to stop the rise of the Nazis allowed Hitler to seize power without opposition and crush the entire movement--and plunge the world into the most horrific crisis it has ever faced.

Trotsky also wrote polemics against the Communists' subsequent Popular Front strategy, which subordinated the workers' movement to bourgeois liberal parties--whose policies led to fascist victories in Spain. With the persistent threat of the far right in Europe and elsewhere, the writings on Germany retain their relevance--as does the analysis of the Popular Front, which survives on the left to this day--in the U.S., in the form of arguments for supporting Democrats as a "lesser evil."

Tragically, Stalinism cut off Trotsky and his followers from the international workers' movement. Today, Stalinism is dead. But more than six decades after Trotsky's death, the work of re-establishing the revolutionary socialist tradition in the international working class is still in its earliest stages.

That task will be enormously difficult. But we are incalculably better equipped to meet that challenge because of Trotsky's intransigence in the face of Stalinism, his efforts to generalize revolutionary Marxism--and the heroic efforts of his followers to keep that tradition alive in the difficult years since then. By writing this excellent overview of Trotsky's contributions to Marxism, Duncan Hallas has provided today's revolutionaries with an indispensable resource.

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