Wed May 22, 2024
May 22, 2024

Trotskyism and Stalinism: polemics of yesterday and today

The war in Ukraine divided the left across the world. Few were the organizations that took a stand in defense of the Ukrainian resistance. Some opposed the war, which in practice is to defend the capitulation of Ukraine to Putin, and others openly defended the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This scandalous position, supported by the Communist Party (CP) in Portugal and in other countries, is based on the ideological bases of the Stalinist bureaucratic current.  We might have thought this to have been thrown into the dustbin of history with the fall of the Wall and the explosion of the majority of the CP in the world. Shockingly, it is now present in various currents that consider themselves revolutionary. Therefore, understanding the origin and bases of the Stalinist current is part of the construction of a program to act today.

By: Joana Salay, Portugal

Stalinism and Trotskyism, opposing currents in the workers’ movement

The history of revolutionary movements is built through polemics. Faced with new facts of reality, it is to be expected that differences will arise on how to interpret and act. Thus, was made the history of the communist internationals, which were built from the experience of the struggles of the international working class.

With the degeneration of the USSR and the Third International, two important currents emerged within the workers’ movement presenting opposing visions and programs for the Soviet State: Trotskyism and Stalinism. The Fourth International, founded by Trotsky in 1938, is the political expression of this process.

Throughout the twentieth century, Stalinism was the main counterrevolutionary current that intervened within the revolutionary processes to contain them and thus guarantee the agreement of peaceful coexistence with imperialism. And its theoretical-methodological influence remains in a good part of the present left.

The IWL was built in the fight against the process of adaptation to bourgeois democracy by the Trotskyist movement, but also in the systematic fight against Stalinism and its ideas. That is why, as we commemorate the 40th anniversary of our international organization, we want to take up again part of these polemics that serve not only for historical learning, but also as lessons for the action of the revolutionary movement.

The bases of Stalinism

The Soviet bureaucracy that gave rise to the Stalinist current did not arise as a continuation of the program of the 1917 revolution, but as a result of its degeneration. The civil war in Russia, fruit of the bourgeois counterrevolution, was responsible for the death of part of the workers’ vanguard that made the revolution. On the other hand, the non-advancement of the workers revolution in countries like Germany, led to a strong isolation of the Soviet State. The bureaucracy is a consequence of the limitations that this process imposed on the USSR, since a new social caste within Russia began to dispute the direction of the workers’ state to guarantee its own benefits. It is, therefore, a counterrevolutionary sector.

In 1924, Bukharin and Stalin elaborated the theory of socialism in one country, defending the possibility of achieving socialism in the national sphere. This elaboration was opposed not only to that of Trotsky but also to that of Marx and Engels, who considered it impossible to overcome capitalism only in the national sphere, and was the basis for several elements of the Stalinist degeneration. At the head of the Soviet state, the bureaucracy created various theories of justification to defend its privileges. These theories were not restricted to the USSR but, through the degenerated Third International were transplanted by the CPs all over the world.

In the service of the counterrevolution, the bureaucracy imposed a repressive regime within the Soviet State and the Bolshevik political organizations. The well-known Moscow trials are the expression of the bloody persecution that Stalin had to carry out against his opponents and mainly against the main leaders of the 1917 revolution.

To take away the rights of women in the Workers’ State, the bureaucracy created a cult of the family which was later applied by all the CPs. The Italian CP, for example, in the mid-1940s was part of a project to defend the family as the foundation of the new republic, committed to avoiding “divisive moral questions.” They were against the legalization of divorce [1], stating that the country was not ripe for “such advanced legislation.” The same process occurred with the rights conquered by other oppressed sectors, such as LGBTQI+ or oppressed nationalities.

In 1935, at the VII Congress of the Communist International (CI), the popular front policy was made official as a strategy. The policy that arose as a response to the growth of fascism in Europe consisted of defending the political unity of workers’ and revolutionary organizations with supposedly progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie. And it was permanently applied by the CP, which led Stalinism to collaboration with the bourgeoisie and the disarmament of the workers movement to confront its own fascist rise.

This is how Trotsky summarizes this theory: “The conclusion that [the Stalinist leaders] drew from all this is that the solid unity of all the ‘democratic’ and ‘progressive’ forces, of all the ‘friends of peace’ (this expression exists) is necessary for the defense of the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and of Western democracy, on the other (…) The axis of all the discussions at the congress was the last experience in France in the form of the so-called ‘Popular Front,’ which was a bloc of three parties: Communist, Socialist and Radical [2].”

The theory of popular fronts has been applied in different ways around the world, but its essence has always been the same: to seek the progressive bourgeois camp [3].

The emergence of new workers’ states

In spite of the counterrevolutionary policies of Stalinism, in the postwar period there were several revolutionary processes that ended up expropriating the bourgeoisie and creating new workers’ states, such as the Cuban and Chinese processes, states that were born without the working-class exercising power. In the 1960s and 1970s, these bureaucracies adopted a guerrilla strategy that won the support of thousands of activists, even leading to the break of the Chinese CP (CCP) with the Kremlin. However, this break was not political since they continued to defend unity with progressive sectors of the national bourgeoisies.

Mao Tse Tung actually gave a theoretical body to the theory of the Popular Front,with the theory of contradictions:

“When imperialism unleashes a war of aggression against a [semicolonial] country, the different classes of that country, with the exception of a small number of traitors, can unite in a national war against imperialism. Then, the contradiction between imperialism and the country in question becomes the principal contradiction, while all the contradictions between the different classes in the country are temporarily relegated to a secondary and subordinate position (…) Thus, if in a process there are several contradictions, necessarily one of them is the principal one, the one that plays the leading and decisive role, while the others occupy a secondary and subordinate position. Therefore, in studying any complex process in which there are two or more contradictions, we must make every effort to discover the principal contradiction [4].”

In essence, Maoism and Stalinism end up serving the same strategic project of class conciliation, opposed to the revolutionary principle of class independence as a condition for proletarian revolution.

Capitalist restoration and the explosion of the East

The so-called period of “de-Stalinization” began after the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Nikita Khrushchev presented his famous secret report denouncing Stalin’s crimes. This did not mean a break with the essence of Stalinism: peaceful coexistence with imperialism, the abandonment of the world revolution, the negation of workers’ democracy, the international policy of class collaboration through the popular fronts and, from all this, the systematic betrayals of all the revolutions that threatened its interests and its agreements with the bourgeoisie and imperialism.

Because there was no rupture of content with the Stalinist program, there was a lack in opposition to the process of capitalist restoration that was taking place in the USSR, regardless of the criticisms that some might have made for the lack of internal democracy. After becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, Gorbachev and the CPSU bureaucracy initiated Perestroika and Glasnot, which marked the beginning of changes in the economy and international relations and deepened capitalist restoration. Trotsky’s forecast was confirmed and the bureaucracy, turned into an agent of the world bourgeoisie in the Workers’ State, destroyed the forms of socialized property and restored capitalism. And Stalinism, with years of degeneration and class collaboration, was adapting and transforming itself directly into a bourgeois program, without ever ceasing to be Stalinist.

Therefore, the fall of the Wall in 1989 provoked the demoralization of the communist parties throughout the world. It became clear that capitalist restoration had come about by the hand of the bureaucracy itself, without any imperialist invasion, as Trotsky had already predicted in 1938: “The extension of its (the bureaucracy’s) domination undermines, more and more each day, the socialist elements of the economy and increases the possibilities of capitalist restoration [5].”

Trotskyism was formed as a revolutionary political current affirming that to avoid capitalist restoration in the USSR a political revolution would be necessary to remove the bureaucracy from power and put the workers state back in the hands of the working class. Since the political revolution did not take place, the bureaucracy ended up restoring capitalism.

Stalinism today

Despite Stalinist theories proving to be counterrevolutionary and ineffective for the struggle of the working class, new groups are beginning to (re)appear that openly or covertly defend the essence of Stalinism.

Domenico Losurdo, Italian historian, is used as a reference by most of these groups. Losurdo says he is not a Stalinist, but his elaboration focuses on justifying the absurdities committed by Stalinism. He uses imperialist repressions to justify Stalinist repression. It is evident that imperialism used, uses and will use repression to defend its interests. The same method was used by the Stalinist bureaucracy: the repression of the proletarian vanguard in the world to defend the interests of the bureaucracy and not of the revolution. A similar reasoning is made by Francisco Martins Rodrigues, a Portuguese who broke with the CP on the basis of his criticisms of the theory of the popular front, which continues to justify the Stalinist methods and betrayals as a necessary evil.

We believe that a revolutionary program is not possible without a critical appreciation of the Stalinist performance and elaboration. And so, we return to the beginning of this text, the positions of some left groups on the war in Ukraine, for example, is not a mere coincidence. The defense of Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine is based on the theory of progressive camps where, apparently, Putin confronts the interests of imperialism and Ukraine will be representative of the US and NATO. This position simply ignores that there is a military invasion of a historically oppressed nation and ends up capitulating to the Russian bourgeoisie, which has much to gain from the invasion of Ukraine. There is no progressive bourgeois camp and it is in the interest of the working class worldwide to defend the Ukrainian resistance which directly confronts the various bourgeois camps involved.

We see the same theoretical justification appearing now with the rise of the extreme right. They argue that, in the face of the fascist threat, proletarian organizations should adhere to a broad front defending democracy against fascism. While it is correct to build a unity of action against the coup forces, political adherence to the broad front leads to the strategic defeat of the working class. As did, for example, the Brazilian Community Party and the Popular Unity in Brazil, joining the Workers’ Party campaign in an uncritical way, helping to create more illusions in the broad front with the bourgeoisie.

And, in the service of the progressive bourgeois camps, if necessary, Stalinism can not only uncritically support the popular front but also adhere to bourgeois governments, as did the CP, which spent six years supporting a socialist government that maintained all the austerity requirements of the European Union.

In Chile, the CP participated in the neo-liberal government of Bachelet, and now, even after the revolution, it proposes a program from within the regime and the bourgeois institutionality. Its performance in the Constituent Assembly was as a mediator and not as a representative of the interests of the workers. “He threatened to surround the Constituent Convention with mobilizations and never complied. Within the convention they voted in favor of some more ‘radical’ proposals so as not to lose contact with the independent sectors and not to get burned by the population. However, the real role of the CP was to function as a link between the more radical sectors and the Socialist Party and the Broad Front. When the more radical positions were defeated, the CP helped to carry out negotiations between independents and parties. And while they had a radical discourse in the convention, they did exactly the opposite in the government. While they voted in favor of the nationalization of copper, their spokesperson in the government, Camila Vallejo, said on television that there would be no nationalization, reassuring the big businessmen [6].”

In content, the Stalinist sectors, new and old, maintain the method of abandoning the class criterion to analyze the political processes and defend at all costs a supposed progressive camp.

The continuity of Trotskyism as opposition to the Stalinist treasons

The International Workers League – Fourth International was and is an active part in the fight against the counterrevolutionary policies of Stalinism. We actively combat the guerrillismo which, with the triumph of the Cuban revolution, was presented to the Latin American vanguard as a permanent tactic for all countries. This caused the defeat of the vanguard of an entire generation, including an important part of Trotskyism. We also fought against the so-called popular fronts and their variants. Taking as an example the French process of 1981, when the French Community Party adhered to Mitterrand’s government, we fought not only the CP but also Trotskyist sectors which had a policy of capitulation to the government, such as the Lambertist current. We built our current by fighting the methods of Stalinism, lies, slander, repression and the lack of workers’ democracy. And many times, in opposition to the Stalinist parties, we were the vanguard and an active part of the struggle of the oppressed sectors.

Forty years after our founding, we are convinced that reality presents us with new challenges that demand from revolutionaries a programmatic updating. However, responding to the new challenges also implies rescuing and learning from the lessons of the past. And in the face of these new phenomena, it is not enough to re-edit policies that proved to be mistaken, but rather to seek to build, together with the working class, a program that responds to the problems of the present and is based on the fundamental principles of the revolutionary movement: class independence and the defense of the dictatorship of the proletariat.



[2] “El Congreso de liquidación de la Komintern”, Escritos, T. VII, vol. 1, pp. 133 y 135-136.

[3] Moreno, Nahuel. La teoría de los “campos burgueses progresivos”, 1982.

[4] Mao, Obras Escogidas, T. 1.

[5] Trotsky, León. Programa de Transición: la agonía mortal del capitalismo y las tareas de la Cuarta Internacional.


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