Nahuel Moreno wrote a short essay entitled Being a Trotskyist today in 1985. In it, the Argentine Trotskyist leader claimed what he believed to be the fundamental political, theoretical and programmatic legacy that Leon Trotsky left to Marxism.
Namely, the international character of the socialist revolution, the struggle against the bureaucracies of trade unions and former workers’ states and the battle for the construction of a world party of revolution, the Fourth International. By itself, Moreno’s text is unquestionable and remains actual. However, today, in the early 21st century, as we approach the centenary of the Russian Revolution, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 23 years after the end of the Soviet Union, when there is no longer any workers’ state in the world, when the idea of socialism is thrown in the mud due to the crimes of Stalinism and continues to be identified with bizarre and disgraceful caricatures like North Korea or the shadows of what once were workers’ states such as Cuba and China, Trotsky’s legacy needs to be revisited.
Does it make sense to be a Trotskyist today? To what extent Trotsky’s thought remains current for those who wish to change the world? As far as Trotsky’s ideas respond to the heartfelt wishes of the new generations of social activists who reject the old bureaucratic methods of the traditional parties, including those on the left? Has not the Trotskyist theory and program of permanent revolution been overcome by the elaboration of some of the Marxist thinkers of the second half of the 20th century, or even of the 21st century, or by a combination of distinct ideas by distinct authors? A quick tour of what we consider to be the core of Trotsky’s thought should provide the key elements so that one’s own judgment can be made.
Marxism and Trotskyism in the 20th century
Excluding Lenin (whose contribution to Marxism is outstanding) and Trotsky himself (specific object of our analysis) we can say that Marxism was deeply enriched throughout the 20th century. Important aspects of Marx’s thought were improved or updated; some gaps in his elaborations were filled; questions that Marx himself did not arise were raised. Thinkers like György Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, Louis Althusser and many others participated in this gigantic and fruitful effort, to name only those who have made global contributions to Marx’s system. Whether we agree or not with such elaborations, we must recognize that these men and women are the ultimate evidence that scientific socialism is a collective work in everlasting construction, which is not and never will be finished, not even the most brilliant pages of its founders.
In considering the place of Trotsky in Marxism of the 20th century it’s not enough to appeal to the fact that the leader of the October Revolution combined masterfully theory and practice throughout his life. Others also did, and deserve the same honor. The gigantism of Trotsky’s thought when compared to all other Marxist thinkers is defined by the fact that he, and he alone, was able to decipher the central enigma of the last century, the primary factor that determined all other events from 1917 so far: the bureaucratization, degeneration and subsequent end of the first workers’ state in history.
In this aspect, Trotsky went further than Lenin because he could live for more years. Lenin, who retired permanently from political life on March 6, 1923, when he suffered his third stroke, did not see the phenomenon of bureaucratization except in the beginning, and had not enough time to analyse it deeper. Trotsky, on the other hand, armed with the theory of permanent revolution and having been strongly involved in the struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy for most of the 1920s, could produce a comprehensive explanation of the phenomenon.
It was not an easy task. As Trotsky used to say, the Bolsheviks never believed in the possibility of the bureaucratic degeneration of the USSR simply because their deep internationalism induced them to the conclusion that if the European socialist revolution did not triumph, the inexorable fate of the USSR would be the invasion by an imperialist foreign power, but never its degeneration. That is, the survival of an isolated USSR, even degenerated, was not even a hypothesis in 1917. Such was the novelty of the theoretical challenge before Marxism.
But Trotsky did not simply analyze the degeneration of the first workers’ state, explaining their true and profound economic, social and political background. He made a double prognosis: either the Soviet working class would take over effective control of the state apparatus by means of a political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy, or capitalism would be restored by the hands of the bureaucracy itself.
When this prognosis was drawn in 1936, it was met with irony and contempt by most who considered themselves Marxists. The economy of the USSR was growing at incredibly high rates and “socialism in one country” seemed to have triumphed definitively. Almost 50 years later, in the mid-1980s, the Soviet bureaucracy restored capitalism in the USSR after implementing a state policy called Perestroika, giving reason to Trotsky.
If today imperialism uses the end of the Soviet Union as the core issue for its campaign against socialism, we must recognize that, for almost 50 years, the Trotskyists, guided by Trotsky, forecasted this inevitable end, unless an anti-bureaucratic political revolution triumphed in the old empire of the czars.
It is true that the Marxist critique of the USSR is not Trotsky’s or Trotskyism’s privilege. Many other authors have written serious assumptions and forecasts that in time were the subject of justified attention. However, as the second thesis on Feuerbach states:”The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice.” That is, the truth of a theory or concept is not given by its internal coherence. This is the criterion of formal logic, not of dialectical logic, concrete logic. Thus, as much elegant they have been, in their time, none of the explanations produced by other Marxists on the USSR (“state capitalism”, “bureaucratic state” etc.), allowed a full understanding of the phenomenon, from its origin, through its evolution to its withering and death.Only the concept of degenerated workers’ state – this unattractive idea, difficult to digest by common sense – could do it.
The 21st century: updating the Marxist program
But the 20th century is behind us; the end of the USSR and the restoration of capitalism in absolutely all former workers’ states are undisputable facts, at least in the humble opinion of the political current we belong to, the International Workers League. In addition, the world has become more complex: new political, economic and social issues have emerged – others lacked importance; old counterrevolutionary apparatus and reformist disappeared – new ones were born; old illusions were lost – many other occupied their place. Faced with so many and profound changes, it would be madness and proof of extreme political blindness to say that the revolutionary program of 21st century should be identical to the 20th century one. Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky himself updated the program of scientific socialism inumerous times, when demanded by reality. For them, the revolutionary program was not a Bible with sacred scriptures, but a temporary photograph of reality, a guide to action. As reality changed, also should the program change. Updating the Marxist program according to the new reality open with the collapse of the workers’ states and the failure of the global apparatus of Stalinism: such is the challenge that the new century brings us.
But those who think that the new century, just because being “new”, requires some kind of “new socialism”, “new strategies” or “new social subjects” are wrong. In fact, the theoretical elaborations and Trotsky’s program for the 20th century are the only foundation on which can be built a socialist program for the 21st century. While the overwhelming majority in the left concludes the impossibility of socialism due to the failure of the USSR, the Trotskyist program points exactly in the opposite direction: what failed with the USSR was the strategy of peaceful coexistence with imperialism; the design of a monolithic party, with untouchable, infallible, omniscient and omnipotent leaders; the view that socialism can be built without the participation of the working class in the country’s administration; the attempt to build “strong” unions without the democratic participation of workers in all decisions; the idea – so attractive and so harmful – that the middle classes can replace the proletariat in building a socialist society. None of these failures relates to socialism or Marxism. They are failures of Stalinism, which is not a Marxist current, but its antithesis.
For the Trotskyists, therefore, it is time to update the program, but this updating inevitably should keep the essence of the “old” program, which should be enriched by new elements of reality. The new 21st century socialist program is the program of relentless struggle against imperialism and all its oppressive tactics, exploitation and deceit; the proletarian revolution; the radical democratization of trade unions and the fight to end the bureaucratic cancer in all organizations of the working class; the return of the revolutionary program of the working class, from where it should never have left; the fight against all kinds of gender oppression, race, sexual orientation and nationality, slogans that Stalinism never really raised; the construction of deeply democratic and highly disciplined revolutionary parties; the reconstruction of a Marxist International that unites these parties in a world leadership; and so many other issues that should arise and will surely arise.
Trotskyism: the Marxism of the 21st century
In his autobiography, Leopold Trepper, the famous Soviet agent who built an anti-Hitler spy network in the Nazi Germany, made a testimony about the Trotskyists:
“The revolution had degenerated into a system of terror and horror; the ideals of socialism were ridiculed by a fossilized dogma which the executioners had the effrontery to call Marxism. Those who didn’t gather together against the Stalinist machine are responsible for this, collectively responsible. I do not make exceptions, and I don’t escape this verdict.
“But who protested? Who raised his voice against the outrage? The Trotskyists can claim that honor. Urged by their leader, who paid the stubbornness with death, they fought Stalinism relentlessly – and were the only ones. In the times of the great purges, they could make their rebellion only in the vast frozen wastes where they had been sent in order to be exterminated. In the fields, their conduct was worthy and even admirable, but their voices were lost in the tundra.
“Today the Trotskyists have the right to accuse those who then howled along with the wolves. Not to forget, however, that they had over us the immense advantage of having a coherent political system capable of replacing Stalinism, and to which they could cling to in the midst of the profound misery of the Revolution Betrayed.“
These words give a small idea of the strength of Trotsky’s thought and the role it fulfilled at the exact moment that the counter-revolution led by Stalin advanced against the conquests of October. Being anti-Stalinist after the fall of the Berlin Wall is not difficult. Being anti-Stalinist for 60 years – when Stalinism was the largest political force of the world in the working class – is something else. Of this feat only the Trotskyists were able. No other current did. None.
Trotskyism was the Marxism of the 20th century because it fought Stalinist degeneration with all the force at its disposal. But it is also the Marxism of the 21st century because the defeat of one-party rule by the Soviet and Eastern Europe masses – that opened the historical period in which we live – was the confirmation of its most important thesis, despite occurring in States that were no longer workers’ states. We are sorry, like any conscious worker, for the end of the planned economy in that region of the world. But we do not assume any responsibility for the fate of those States as they were in the hands of Stalinism. Our program was the program of political revolution. The Berlin Wall did not fall on our heads.
Fighting bureaucracy and privileges, for a better life, for political and artistic freedom have always been an inherent part of our program. It was also our struggle. We share with the younger generation the desire to take into our own hands the rudder of our destiny and not deliver it to any hero, general or new czar. We suspect along with them of all kind of secret, of all backstage talk, of any attempt to replace the action of the working class by the wisdom of enlightened leaders. For behaving so for almost 90 years, Trotskyism earned the right not only to the historic rehabilitation, not only to the past, but also – and especially – the right to a future.