SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 227 April 2019

In Defence of Marxism

In Defence of Marxism is one of Leon Trotsky’s seminal works. It is a collection of letters and articles written over the course of 1939-40, but only published in 1942, two years after Trotsky was assassinated by a Stalinist agent. In a new introduction to the book, PETER TAAFFE explains why it is still so relevant today.

This book is a masterpiece from a master Marxist theoretician, Leon Trotsky, in his application of materialist dialectics, the theory of change, to complex historical events. Here the author deals comprehensively with the class character of the Russian state, at that time under the heel of Stalinism. In the process, Trotsky illuminates many questions which are as relevant today as when they were first written.

On the different forms of the state under capitalism, such as bourgeois democracy or the topical issue today of bourgeois parliamentary Bonapartism – with increased power concentrated in a growing repressive state – through capitalist regimes like Jair Bolsonaro’s in Brazil. Trotsky also touches on many other vital issues for Marxists. On the absolute necessity for democratic control and management of the future workers’ state, as well as the instrument to create that state: a mass party of the working class. Indeed, if there was one central theme of In Defence of Marxism it is this: what kind of party is necessary to replace capitalism with a worldwide democratic socialist system?

Trotsky’s literary output was vast. However, his last writings – among which this impressive book stands out – are probably the most important in politically rearming a new generation of socialist and Marxist fighters who can find mass audiences in the economic and political storms to come. This is on condition that they steer consistently towards the working class and its central role in carrying through the socialist revolution.

The capitalist system has completely drained the cup of optimism to its last drop. That applies in the economic field, where the productive forces are in a blind alley, and in politics, revealed through the splits in the ruling class – more like a splintering in Britain and Europe. It is also to be found in the huge discontent brewing not only in the ranks of the most exploited class, the working class, but also in broad layers of the middle class, increasingly thrown into a pit of despair by crisis-ridden capitalism.

One measure of the mass revolt that is coming is that the majority of young people in the US, the millennials, are already in favour of the idea of ‘socialism’. The brutal journal of capitalism, The Economist, admitted this in a recent leader column: "Socialism is storming back because it has formed an incisive critique of what has gone wrong in western societies… Some 51% of Americans aged 18-29 have a positive view of socialism, says Gallup".


The world has changed profoundly since In Defence of Marxism was written. Stalinism has largely disappeared with the collapse of the former ‘Soviet Union’ and the eastern European regimes constructed in its image. They were planned economies, albeit with power concentrated in the hands of a privileged, greedy, undemocratic and bureaucratic elite rather than in the democratic control of the masses.

However, following the Russian revolution in 1917, these economies developed at unprecedented speed and scope by utilising planning and imitating the achievements of capitalism in science and technique. They played a hugely progressive role in developing the productive forces which transformed for a time largely agricultural Russia from the India of Europe into the second industrial power in the world, after the US. They gave a glimpse to the world working class of what would be possible if the planned economy was linked with democracy at all levels.

However, the Soviet Union showed that the full possibilities of a planned economy could not be realised without it spreading through the revolution worldwide. Moreover, the dead hand of the bureaucracy – a malignant excrescence which grew with the revolution’s isolation – could only be removed through a political revolution with a system of workers’ control and management established at all levels.

Leon Trotsky outlined different scenarios for the future of the Soviet Union, one of which was a catastrophic return to capitalism because of the bureaucratic mismanagement and crimes of Stalinism. This has now taken place, unfortunately, with the collapse of Stalinism itself. This resulted in an economic crisis in Russia and eastern Europe much worse than the worst capitalist slump of the 1930s! On top of this we witnessed the world economic crisis of 2007-08, second only in its effects to the great depression of the 1930s. Moreover, all the economic indicators now point towards another great crash in the next period with all its attendant miseries for the masses.

Where now are the bold predictions of Helmut Kohl, German chancellor at the time of the fall of the Berlin wall? Kohl promised that out of its rubble would sprout "blooming landscapes". He promised to the masses in the ex-Stalinist states "a great journey leading to the promised land of Swedish or US living standards". Our reply then was: "It was more likely to be via Latin America". Even this perspective was too optimistic, with living conditions in Russia and eastern Europe in some areas plunging to the level of Bangladesh or India. Life expectancy for Russian men at one stage in the new capitalist ‘paradise’ fell below that of India, partly as a product of a huge increase of alcoholism. This arose from mass depression and disappointment as the capitalist dream turned into a nightmare.

The masses in these states now face a similar task to the working class of western Europe and the world in confronting and removing from the stage of history outmoded capitalism through the socialist revolution. This would be aimed against all capitalist regimes which dominate the planet, thereby initiating a new democratic socialist confederation of Europe and the world. Only in this way will we be able to fully utilise all the great resources of the planet built up by the ingenuity and labours of the working class, thereby eradicating hunger and privation – and, at the same time, through a great world plan avoid environmental and climate catastrophe.

The CWI’s record

This is the ultimate aim of In Defence of Marxism. Deteriorating and unacceptable living conditions are not enough to effect serious change, never mind revolution. Nor is the willingness of the working class to fight against its immediate conditions, even capitalism as a whole, evident in the constant upheavals, particularly in Spain and southern Europe. Only when all the conditions for revolution – a split in the ruling class; the middle layers in revolt and looking towards the working class for a way out; a feeling among the mass of the working class that ‘we cannot live like this any longer’ – will it be possible to effect what would be the greatest social overturn in history, the socialist revolution.

All these conditions can be present but if the most vital one, a mass party, is absent revolution can be derailed. Leon Trotsky called this the ‘subjective factor’, a mass revolutionary party with a trained, farsighted political leadership able to withstand the pressures of capitalism and its agents in the working class, the sell-out ‘reformist’ trade union and labour leaders. Even the most favourable of revolutionary situations can be lost unless a mass revolutionary party is present. This must be built systematically with the central idea that socialist revolution is the only way to liberate humankind from capitalism, a system which threatens to drag us into the abyss of increasing poverty, degradation and misery.

"Say what needs to be said; do what needs to be done", wrote Trotsky. He did not just platonically advocate the necessity for a mass workers’ party with a revolutionary leadership but, as In Defence of Marxism illustrates, was very attentive to all the basic tasks involved even in the assembling of the building blocks for such a force. He did not minimise obstacles: "The selection and education of a truly revolutionary leadership, capable of withstanding the pressure of the bourgeoisie, is an extraordinarily difficult task". Difficult but not impossible!

The record of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) and its parties and formations has demonstrated this clearly. It was not right-wing trade union leaders nor the official Labour ‘left’ who defeated Margaret Thatcher in Liverpool in the 1980s through mass action, including a citywide general strike. It was Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, a section of the CWI, that provided the strategy, tactics and leadership to force Thatcher to retreat.

This mass movement made Thatcher give back to the city millions of pounds which had been stolen through previous savage cuts by the Tory government. This allowed Liverpool city council to build more council housing than all other councils in Britain put together. Other ‘reforms’ were undertaken, such as three entirely new parks, and the creation of thousands of local authority jobs, including the employment of a substantial layer of women, young black and Asian people – with the support of the trade unions. They had previously been discriminated against and denied jobs by the administrations of capitalist parties, the Tories and the Liberals.

It was a living example of real reforms for the working class as a product of serious mass struggle and not just pleading from pliant trade union leaders and politicians who are ‘reformists without reforms’ now. This was followed by the mighty poll tax battle with 18 million people mobilised by Militant and its allies into an army of non-payment which defeated the tax and saw the hated Thatcher resign. Thirty-five members of Militant, including the heroic Militant Labour MP Terry Fields, were jailed alongside many others in the wider anti-poll tax movement, but Thatcher was consigned to history.

Similar heroic work was carried out by the Irish section of the CWI in the defiant movement against the water charges and in many other battles. There have also been the colossal mobilisations, including the organisation of general strikes of young people in particular, by our sister organisation Izquierda Revolucionaria in the Spanish state together with the splendid school students union, Sindicato de Estudiantes.

Looking for short cuts

The class analysis in In Defence of Marxism is particularly timely and relevant to the situation facing all socialists and revolutionaries today, including those assembled in the ranks of the CWI. We have faced many hostile class pressures, unfortunately at times reflected in our ranks, particularly in the period after the collapse of Stalinism. This invariably arose from those seeking short cuts, buttressed with the argument that we need ‘allies’, particularly when the working class and its organisations do not appear to be active or moving into an immediate collision with capitalism.

We faced this from former comrades in Scotland who originally argued for the necessity to dilute the structures of our party. Ostensibly, this was to win over layers of reformists who appeared to be moving closer to us politically. Instead of the comrades winning these ‘sympathetic’ forces to us, however, over time our former comrades were instead won to reformism and ‘left’ nationalism. This represented the beginning of the liquidation of the ideas and organisation of the CWI in Scotland.

All but a handful of the leaders of the Scottish Socialist Party subsequently collapsed politically – in the process making unprincipled concessions to Scottish nationalism. They have since disappeared from the political scene, while some of the early pioneers of ours in Scotland remain steadfast members of the CWI and continue to play an important role. For instance, in the recent magnificent strike of working-class women in Glasgow, who instinctively turned to their male co-workers to support and become involved in the strike, the Unison branch secretary is a member of Socialist Party Scotland, affiliated to the CWI.

There is nothing new in an attempt to find an ‘easier’ road to influence the working class by watering down the approach and programme of Marxism. Usually, this is building on sand. Particularly in the advanced industrial countries from 1950 to 1975, many Trotskyists struggled – against great odds – because of a certain isolation arising from the temporary unfavourable conditions. On the surface, the working class appeared to be politically quiescent, even accepting of capitalism.

Some Trotskyists, like Ernest Mandel and his supporters, while formally paying lip-service to the importance of the working class, looked towards ‘other forces’ – for example, students as ‘detonators’ for revolution. ‘New leaders’ like Tito in Yugoslavia and Fidel Castro in Cuba were embraced, with the idea of guerrillaism as the ‘new model’ for struggle. However, Mandel and others only succeeded in misleading and destroying their forces, particularly in Latin America, some of them quite heroic fighters. It was a futile attempt to escape the patient work of building and consolidating forces in the working class and its organisations such as the trade unions.

Revolutionary leadership

Even before the creation of the CWI, Militant turned its back on such methods and faced up squarely to the task of winning workers, young workers initially and through them seeking to find a road to the mass of the working class. Other Trotskyist forces adopted a similar approach, in Latin America for instance, but with a sectarian slant. Consequently, they were invariably cut off from potentially important forces among the working class.

It remains a fact that it was Militant – and Militant alone – that was successful in building a powerful force for Marxism in Britain by rooting our comrades in the working class and building on solid foundations. Of course, we vigorously intervened in many of the social movements, some of them mass formations, such as the poll tax. We have also intervened successfully in the many anti-capitalist movements and environmental campaigns, particularly where they involve the new generation in struggle. The same goes for the women’s movement – seeking at all times to link these struggles to the organised working class.

At the same time, we have to combat and defeat all ideologically petty-bourgeois political trends which seek to divide, to introduce separatism into the workers’ movement. Under the signboard of ‘identity politics’, the US bourgeois first use their ‘ideological factories’, the universities, to spread their pernicious doctrines in order to divide mass opposition to them and their system on separatist lines – race, gender, caste, etc. While Marxists support the rights of all oppressed minorities, we always emphasise and strive for the maximum unity of the working class.

The whole of history attests to the correctness of Trotsky’s position outlined in In Defence of Marxism. Despite the many revolutions and revolutionary situations over the last 150 years, why has a successful working-class, democratic socialist revolution only been carried through in Russia so far? The dialectic of history meant that a Marxist party with the most modern ideas developed first in an economically ‘underdeveloped’ country because of the unique circumstances that Trotsky anticipated in his famous ‘theory of the permanent revolution’. This and the existence of the leadership of the Bolshevik party – led by Lenin and Trotsky – resulted in the victory of the 1917 Russian revolution, whose immediate effects were felt internationally.

Rotted capitalism will not automatically disappear from the scene of history. This is a system that is no longer dominated by your ‘average’ millionaire, as in the past, but by a handful of oligarchs – billionaires. They now wield as much power as whole states and confederations of states wielded previously. It will take a mighty movement of the working class, mobilising behind it all the oppressed layers who are already alienated from and ready to revolt against and defeat outmoded capitalism, and replace it with world socialism.

The answer to how to undertake this colossal task can be found – particularly by the new generation – in reading and absorbing In Defence of Marxism and all of Leon Trotsky’s works.

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