3. Trotsky’s Theory of the Party

Concluding his three-part discussion of the Marxist theory of the revolutionary party, Neil Faulkner takes a critical look at the Trotskyist tradition. Originally published on Time to Mutiny!

12 September 2020

For Victor Serge, a veteran revolutionary who spent time in Stalin’s prisons, it was ‘midnight in the century’. For Isaac Deutscher, the biographer of Trotsky, it was ‘the hell-black night’.

Stalinist counter-revolution had smothered the last embers of working-class democracy in Russia in the winter of 1927/8. A million were then murdered and ten million incarcerated in the state terror that engulfed Russia in the following decade.

Foreign communist parties, which organised millions of potentially revolutionary workers, became tools of the Kremlin dictatorship and led the working class to defeat after defeat – in China, Germany, Austria, France, and Spain. By 1938, the great working-class movement forged in the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 was shattered. Stalinism and Fascism dominated the continent of Europe.

The revolutionaries were vilified, hounded, and isolated; reduced to scattered individuals and tiny discussion groups often forced to meet in secret. Trotsky himself was in exile in Mexico. His followers numbered a handful in one country, a few dozen in another, a few hundred at most elsewhere. Under Stalinist and Fascist dictatorship, they lived in fear of the secret police, but even in the remaining liberal democracies (notably Britain, France, and the US) they were largely cut off from the working class by the grotesque slanders peddled by the Stalinists.

The world, of course, was on the road to war – towards the barbarism of Stalingrad, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima. The contradiction between the scale of the world crisis and the weakness of the working class was the context for Trotsky’s desperate decision to launch a new party in 1938: the Fourth International.

He had proclaimed the need for it in 1933, following the Nazi seizure of power in Germany. This had been a direct consequence of the sectarian stupidity of the German Communist Party, which, under orders from Stalin, had split the working class in the face of the fascist threat by declaring the Social Democrats to be ‘social-fascists’ and the main enemy. There had even been occasions when Nazis and Stalinists had combined to attack meetings of Social-Democratic workers.

Trotsky had penned article and article calling for a united anti-fascist front: in vain. His conclusion was that the Third International was finished: ‘An organisation which was not roused by the thunder of fascism and which submits docilely to such outrageous acts of bureaucracy demonstrates thereby that it is dead and cannot be revived.’

He worked through the mid 1930s for a broad international anti-Stalinist regroupment. He made overtures to the Independent Labour Party in Britain, the Socialist Workers Party in Germany, the Workers Party of Marxist Unity (POUM) in Spain, and others. But these efforts came to nothing, and in 1938, the international situation having deteriorated further, Trotsky made the decision to launch the Fourth International despite his minimal forces.

This was a grave mistake. It is one thing to declare that a new international is needed; it is quite another to proclaim one. The ‘Fourth International’ was a fiction. The First International had been an organisation of trade unions and socialist, revolutionary-nationalist, and anarcho-syndicalist groups. The Second International had organised all the major social-democratic parties of Europe. The Third International had emerged from the Russian Revolution and been formed of revolutionary parties with tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of members.

The declaration of the Fourth International was an attempt to break out of the crippling weakness, isolation, and demoralisation that afflicted Trotsky’s supporters. The founding conference – held secretly in France – was attended by just 21 delegates. They purported to represent 11 organisations, but most of these were the tiniest of groups, and one, the ‘Russian section’, was a complete fiction, a non-existent group ‘represented’ by an undercover police agent.

The conference adopted the programme written by Trotsky: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (sometimes called The Transitional Programme). The programme makes this opening point:

The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of leadership of the proletariat… The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only ‘ripened’, they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e. chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership.

The problem here was obvious: the working class had suffered a succession of crippling defeats at the hands of Stalinism and Fascism; and the revolutionaries had been reduced to mere handfuls.

Trotsky ‘solved’ this problem – and, in a sense, attempted to inspire his followers with hope – by making a series of extraordinary predictions: that the Stalinist regime in Russia was highly unstable and would collapse under the impact of war; that world capitalism was in terminal crisis and was incapable of raising living-standards or delivering social reform; that the colonial world would soon see a wave of revolutions led by the working class; that the outbreak of war would bring this incipient world crisis to a rapid climax; and that, in consequence, millions of revolutionary workers across the world would soon rally to the banner of the Fourth International.

None of this turned out to be true. The post-war world confounded all of Trotsky’s predictions in 1938. The Stalinist regime did not collapse under the impact of imperialist war: on the contrary, the Red Army conquered half of Europe and created a new Soviet empire. The Western economies did not collapse into a new depression; on the contrary, they experienced a 25-year boom in which living-standards rose year-on-year and ‘cradle-to-grave’ welfare states were constructed. The colonial revolution was not led by the working class and did not detonate a world revolution; on the contrary, it was led by middle-class nationalists committed to local programmes of national development and social reform. And, in consequence, instead of millions rallying to the Fourth International, they rallied to Stalinism and Social Democracy; and Trotskyism – revolutionary Marxism – remained a matter of tiny groups.

The legacy of Trotsky

The post-war Trotskyist tradition was formed in the darkness of the 1930s. When it re-emerged in the 1950s, it was stamped with a sectarian character. And even when it enjoyed a modest flowering in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, it remained hamstrung by exceptional levels of organisational fragmentation. Some groupuscules (as they were called in France in the late 60s) did turn themselves into ‘small mass parties’ of a few thousand, or even, in exceptional cases, a few tens of thousands; but not a single one ever succeeded in becoming a mass working-class party comparable with the parties of the Third International in the early 1920s. Why?

There are many answers to this question. There were, of course, ‘objective’ factors – to do with the resilience of Stalinism and Social Democracy, the deep ‘civil society’ defences of the bourgeois order, and the capacity of the system to deliver sufficient material improvement to enough of the working class for enough of the time to stabilise the social order. These factors were overwhelmingly dominant during the Great Boom (1948-73). But were also ‘subjective’ factors at work – to do with the relationship between revolutionaries and the working class – and these would assume growing importance when the system entered a new world crisis in the 1970s.

Trotsky was one of the greatest revolutionary activists and thinkers of the 20th century. He developed the theory of ‘permanent revolution’ which accurately predicted the form of the Russian Revolution. He led the October Insurrection in 1917, and he commanded the Red Army during the Russian Civil War of 1919-21. He was the principal leader of the Bolshevik opposition to Stalinism inside Russia in the 1920s, and he was the leading revolutionary voice on the world stage throughout the 1930s. He kept alive the real Marxist tradition – the theory and practice of international working-class revolution – through the ‘hell-black night’ of triumphant Stalinism and Fascism. He held the banner aloft so that it could be taken up by a new generation and carried forwards. But he also handed his followers a poisoned chalice: a degenerated theory of the revolutionary party.

A proclamation is not a party. A programme is not a party. This is the mistake of ‘voluntarism’, a form of ‘idealism’ (using the term in its philosophical sense), the belief that one can leap over material barriers by an act of faith or willpower. This was the mistake inherent in the declaration of the Fourth International in 1938.

This mistake was compounded by false prognoses. Marxism is not a crystal-ball. The future is not predetermined: it is contingent on collective human action. Nor is it predictable: it is the result of complex processes and interactions that give rise to new social developments which cannot be foreseen. This was the mistake inherent in the publication of The Transitional Programme in 1938.

These mistakes – voluntarism and false prognoses – especially when made by a figure of such enormous prestige as Trotsky – created a crisis for his followers at the end of the Second World War. They were thrown into disarray. Some denied the historical realities in front of them and turned The Transitional Programme into a dogma. Others tried to adjust to the new realities, but failed to make a clean break. The rows turned into splits, and what made splitting the default option was: a) the fact that the Trotskyist groups were tiny; and b) the conviction that the ‘programme’ – the party ‘line’ – was paramount.

A large revolutionary organisation rooted in the vanguards of the working class and the oppressed has much to lose in terms of influence and potential if it splits. It is also disciplined by its participation in the class struggle. Rooted working-class activists take the question of organisation seriously. They know it matters; they know organisation is strength. Differences can be argued out and/or tested in practice; better that than a split over a secondary matter.

It is quite otherwise in a small group. Differences are more likely to be both personalised and abstract. Only a few people are involved, and, without strong roots in the class struggle, there is no way of testing ideas in practice, so they cannot be resolved, and tend to fester. Serial splitting is a disease of small groups.

And the abstractions of the ‘programme’ assume exceptional importance in small groups for that reason. Without real influence, there is no real test. If there is no real test, there is no way of deciding, so the argument intensifies, becomes embittered, and the micro-group splits into two even tinier micro-groups.

The best of the post-war Trotskyist groups tried hard to embed themselves in mass working-class organisation, and in consequence some played a leading role in some big struggles. But even the best were prey to sectarian impulses (and the worst were out-and-out sectarians from the outset) – impulses that grew in the context of political isolation during the long upswing in global capitalism, and which were, in many cases, theorised as canonical features of the Marxist tradition.

The myth of democratic-centralism

I want to argue two things in relation to the vexed question of ‘democratic-centralism’ – which I deliberately hyphenate to accentuate the exceptional status this concept has acquired in debates about the revolutionary party. First, that it is largely a product of political degeneration. Second, that it is inoperable in a revolutionary (as opposed to a bureaucratic) party.

As far as I can tell, references to the concept in Lenin’s works are few, and most of these few post-date 1917. There are many more references in Trotsky, but virtually all post-date 1917. Democratic-centralism does not appear to have been a preoccupation of the Russian revolutionary leadership until they were confronted by the enormous challenges represented by civil war, economic and social collapse, and world revolution in the period 1917-23.

The concept seems to have gained prominence during Zinoviev’s stewardship of the early Comintern (the Third International) between 1919 and 1923, when it was a feature of attempts to pressurise foreign affiliated parties to ‘Bolshevise’. It then acquired much greater significance in the context of Stalinist degeneration, eventually becoming a mechanism of Stalinist counter-revolution inside Russia, and a way of controlling foreign communist parties. In the light of this, it seems highly anomalous that democratic-centralism should also have become a feature of the Trotskyist tradition.

The concept has no real meaning outside the framework of some sort of coercive apparatus. All progressive (and many not so progressive) political parties tend to have formal democratic structures, and to adhere to the basic idea that where decisions are contested, they should be made by majority vote. Once a vote has been taken, the policy of the party is supposed to have been decided and can then be acted upon. This is not something peculiar to revolutionary organisations. It does not require a special term like ‘democratic-centralism’; the term ‘democratic’ will do.

Except that people imagine that something more is implied by democratic-centralism: namely, that all members are expected to carry out the policy regardless of whether or not they agree with it.

But what actually happens – in the supposedly democratic-centralist organisations of which so many of us have practical experience? Some members turn up to the activity and some don’t. Among those who turn up there are probably some who voted against, and among those who don’t probably some who voted for. This seems almost childish in its simplicity, but is it not the reality? Does anyone actually get expelled for voting against and then not turning up? And how is this any different from what happens in a reformist, liberal, or conservative organisation? So what, in practice, is the meaning of democratic-centralism?

It comes down to this. Power is concentrated disproportionately and inappropriately in the hands of a (largely) self-perpetuating leadership, or even in the hands of a single guru figure. Small organisations of this kind exist in all periods, and they include not only political organisations, but also religious cults. No doubt they serve certain psychological and emotional needs. But they are not revolutionary-socialist parties, for these must be rooted in the vanguards of the working class and the oppressed, and therefore in the living experience of mass struggle; and this, in any remotely healthy organisation, can be guaranteed to generate a ferment of debate.

The world cannot be understood by reference to a father-figure, a sacred text, a party programme, or an eternal dogma. It can only be understood through a living process of analysis that is a) collective and b) ongoing – collective because the revolutionaries must pool their experiences and impressions if they are to make sound generalisations, and ongoing because everything is in motion, ever-changing, never ‘fixed and fast-frozen’. And it is through sharing and debating and arguing that revolutionaries are forged.

The organised revolutionaries – the party members – must, of course, decide and act. Sometimes they reach a consensus, but if they can’t, the majority decides, and then the party acts. The word for this is ‘democracy’. We gain nothing by mythologising the revolutionary party into some sort of regimented ‘democratic-centralist’ monolith.

One final point is worth making. It is not the party, but the working class and the oppressed in struggle who sometimes have recourse to ‘democratic’ coercive force. There are many examples. Scabs may be physically prevented from crossing picket-lines during strikes. Fascists and racists may be physically prevented from organising marches or meetings. Police may be physically resisted when they attack demonstrations, occupations, or picket-lines. Informers and collaborators may be executed in wars of national liberation.

Democratic coercion, then, is a weapon in the struggle between classes, between oppressor and oppressed, not something to be deployed against dissidents inside the working-class movement (the correct term for which is perhaps ‘Stalinism’ rather than ‘democratic-centralism’).

What is sectarianism?

What do I mean by a sect? Marx provides the classic answer in a private letter written in October 1868: ‘The sect seeks its raison d’être and point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the class movement.’

This definition was rooted in Marx’s conception of the revolutionary party as a party of the working class – as opposed to a utopian-socialist group standing apart from the class struggle and making lofty pronouncements from on high. Lenin put it this way: ‘By directing socialism towards a fusion with the working-class movement, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels did their greatest service: they created a revolutionary theory that explained the necessity for this fusion and gave socialists the task of organising the class struggle of the proletariat.’

Trotsky analysed sectarianism in an article entitled Sectarianism, Centrism, and the Fourth International in 1935, explaining that

… it is not enough to create a correct programme. It is necessary that the working class accept it. But the sectarian, in the nature of things, comes to a stop upon the first half of the task. Active intervention in the actual struggle of the worker masses is supplanted for him by an abstract propaganda of a Marxist programme…

… The sectarian looks upon the life of society as a great school, with himself as a teacher there. In his opinion, the working class should put aside its less important matters, and assemble in solid rank around his rostrum: then the task would be solved.

Though he swear by Marxism in every sentence, the sectarian is the direct negation of dialectical materialism, which takes experience as its point of departure, and always returns to it. A sectarian does not understand the dialectic action and reaction between a finished programme and a living, that is to say, imperfect and unfinished mass struggle. The sectarian’s method of thinking is that of a rationalist, a formalist, and an enlightener… The sectarian lives in a sphere of ready-made forumulas.

We can summarise the Marxist definition of a sect in the following way:

· It is a group that defines itself not in terms of what unites it with the working-class movement, but in terms of ‘differences’, which come to assume supreme significance.

· Instead of rooting itself in the demands that arise from the class struggle itself, it creates its own ‘programme’, incorporating the all-important ‘differences’, and then turns this into a fetish.

· It elevates itself into a political ‘authority’ over and above the working class, which it relates to in the role of teacher and bringer of enlightenment, not in the role of vanguard activists embedded in the class struggle.

· Its relationship with the working class is thus reduced to a top-down process of abstract propagandism, where the sectarian preaches ‘the programme’ or ‘the line’ to a benighted working class.

I have little to add to this except to comment on the social psychology of sectarianism. As explained above, weakness makes sectarian fragmentation more pervasive, because organisations with little or no influence have little or nothing to lose when they break up. Weakness, moreover, has its own mental makeup. When we fail, we tend to retreat and become demoralised, even despairing. Some of us then drop out of activity, but others seek a refuge. This has implications.

If the small group is a refuge from an antipathetic world, the members are huddling together and providing mutual support in the face of adversity. The sect then becomes a haven, and ‘The Programme’ a comfort blanket. There is a measure of security in membership of the sect, and of quasi-religious reassurance in The Programme.

We then have an explanation of the exceptional levels of abuse and aggression that characterise sectarian exchanges. Abuse and aggression are, of course, expressions of anxiety; and in this case we can assume that the main cause of anxiety is the insecurity engendered when the integrity of the sect and its holy writ is threatened. Weakness, in short, makes people anxious and aggressive.

Our current attempt to achieve left realignment and establish a democratic, united, internationalist, anti-capitalist organisation has evoked extraordinary sectarian hostility. Much of the comment, both public and private, is openly abusive and personalised. Many of the commentators are clearly willing us to fail. Sectarian leaderships are often among the most vitriolic, presumably because they represent a more concentrated expression of the sectarian mindset than ordinary members, and no doubt because they have a bigger stake in the continued existence of their sect.

We must transcend the political and psychological barriers to the building of a revolutionary party of the working class in Britain. The classical Marxist tradition discussed in these three articles provides a guide to action in this regard. The consequences, by contrast, of continuing sectarian fragmentation and isolation are obvious: the almost complete impotence of the Left in the face of the greatest crisis in the history of humanity and the planet. Or, as Trotsky put it in 1938, ‘The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership.’

Neil Faulkner is the author of A Radical History of the World and co-author of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it.

Further Reading

Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (The Transitional Programme) (1938)

Duncan Hallas, Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party (1971)

John Molyneux, Trotsky’s Dual Legacy (1978)

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