Trotsky and the role of a revolutionary party

Eighty years after the assassination of Leon Trotsky by an agent of Stalin a new book is being produced by the Committee for a Workers’ International, Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary Whose Ideas Couldn’t be Killed. It contains a series of articles looking at the continuing relevance of Trotsky’s ideas, including the article below by HANNAH SELL on the role of a revolutionary party today.

Leon Trotsky, in the preface to his masterpiece, The History of the Russian Revolution, summed up a revolution as “the direct interference of the masses into historical events”. He explained how “at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime”. Trotsky explained the crucial role of the revolutionary party in this process as constituting “not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless, what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam”.

In this passage, Trotsky was correcting (as Lenin himself later did) the one-sided formulation used by Lenin in his famous 1901 pamphlet, What Is to Be Done? This argued that, initially, socialism can only be brought to the working class from the outside, by the revolutionary intelligentsia. The Bolshevik Party was essential to the success of the 1917 Russian revolution, the greatest event in human history so far, as the working class, for the first time, successfully overthrew capitalism. The Bolshevik Party, however, did not simply ‘deliver’ a correct programme to the working class, but rather developed its programme while participating in and learning from the struggles of the working class and oppressed. The soviets (councils) arose in the living struggle of the 1905 revolution. These democratically elected and accountable committees of workers and soldiers were not invented by the Bolsheviks. They were created spontaneously during the revolution to organise the struggle, and later to become the organs through which a new society could be built.

Even without the existence of a revolutionary party, the working class will, as a result of its own experiences, begin to draw socialist conclusions. However, the working class contains many different layers with varying outlooks – public and private sector, old and young workers, skilled and unskilled, specially oppressed groups and so on. The capitalist class has maintained power for centuries by playing on these divisions. A revolutionary party and its programme is designed to overcome these divisions. It aims to unite the working class for common objectives: the struggle against capitalism, its eventual overthrow and replacement with a socialist society.

Contrary to the slanders of the Stalinists, Trotsky fully understood the necessity for such a party. As he explained in his pamphlet, Lessons of October, this was confirmed in the positive by the Russian revolution and, in the negative, by the revolutionary wave that swept Europe in its wake but, in the absence of experienced parties of the Bolshevik type, failed to overthrow capitalism.

Trotsky summarised: “The proletariat cannot seize power by a spontaneous uprising. Even in highly industrialised and cultured Germany the spontaneous uprising of the toilers – in November 1918 – only succeeded in transferring power to the hands of the bourgeoisie. One propertied class is able to seize the power that has been wrested from another propertied class because it is able to base itself upon its riches, its cultural level, and its innumerable connections with the old state apparatus. But there is nothing that can serve the proletariat as a substitute for its own party”.

Lenin’s key role

It was not, of course, Trotsky but Lenin who had played the central role in the creation and steeling of such a party, the Bolsheviks, in the years before 1917 – as Trotsky fully recognised – which provided the framework for building, in the course of the revolution, a mass party capable of leading the struggle for power. Trotsky had previously parted from Lenin in 1903 during the split which developed, unexpected on all sides, at the second congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). The split into two factions – the ‘hard’ Bolsheviks (the majority) and the ‘soft’ Mensheviks (the minority) appeared to develop on secondary organisational issues but, beneath the surface, represented fundamental differences.

Trotsky, who considered himself close to Lenin, found he was in opposition to Lenin. As Trotsky explained in his autobiography, My Life, the disagreement appeared to be over ‘personal’ or ‘moral’ issues but, at bottom, “the separation was of a political nature and merely expressed itself in the realm of organisation methods. I thought of myself as a centralist. But there is no doubt that at the time I did not fully realise what an intense and imperious centralism the revolutionary party would need to lead millions of people in a war against the old order”.

A revolutionary party is based on the methods of democratic centralism. This term, and particularly the need for what Trotsky called “imperious centralism”, has been soiled by the capitalists’ endless attempts to falsely associate it with the brutal Stalinist dictatorships that developed in the Soviet Union and, later, in large parts of eastern Europe. The fact that Stalin was only able to consolidate power over the murdered corpses of the ‘old Bolsheviks’ who had led the revolution is conveniently ignored.

The Bolshevik Party, based on democratic centralism, had nothing in common with Stalinism. The Bolsheviks were the most democratic mass party in history. As Trotsky frequently said, a revolutionary party has to have a flexible ‘mobile balance’ between ‘democracy’ and ‘centralism’ depending on the circumstances. Working in the underground under the tsarist dictatorship, the centralist side was necessarily emphasised. However, during the revolution, the working class was able to flood into the Bolshevik Party. In its mass democratic character they found a party able to meet their needs.

The imperious centralism described by Trotsky is the antithesis of the bureaucracy and lack of democracy of the capitalist parties. The starting point for a revolutionary party is political: a correct programme around which the working class can be unified in a struggle to overthrow capitalism and begin to build a new socialist society. For workers in struggle, the basic concept of democratic centralism is organically understood. Maximum debate and discussion, but – once a decision is reached – unity in action. Every strike contains, in that sense, an element of democratic centralism.

In the course of the Russian revolution, as it unfolded after the February 1917 overthrow of the tsar, Trotsky and Lenin were in complete agreement on all the central tasks facing the working class. While Trotsky did not formally join the Bolsheviks until late July, he worked as one with the Bolsheviks. Politically clear, utterly determined, and with considerable authority from his days as the president of the Saint Petersburg soviet during the 1905 revolution, Trotsky would probably still have faced insurmountable difficulties in forging a party in the heat of the battle, capable of successfully leading the revolution. So would have Lenin.

However, Lenin had done the preparatory work over decades by fighting to build the Bolshevik Party. The authority of the Bolsheviks was based on their work over the previous period. They had played the role described by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto (1848), of fighting for the “attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present they also represent the future of that movement”. The Bolsheviks were the hardest fighters for the immediate aims of the working class. As a result, by 1912, when the definitive break with the Mensheviks was made – although in some local areas joint activity continued until the revolution in 1917 – they had the support of four-fifths of the organised working class.

Confirmation of 1917

The Bolsheviks were not, of course, some ahistorical, abstractly ‘perfect’ party. On the contrary, without the return of Lenin to Russia in April 1917, their leadership would have become no more than the left wing of the Mensheviks. As Trotsky put it, in his unfinished article, The Class, the Party and the Leadership: “The arrival of Lenin in Petrograd on April 3, 1917 turned the Bolshevik Party in time and enabled the party to lead the revolution to victory. Our sages might say that had Lenin died abroad at the beginning of 1917, the October revolution would have taken place ‘just the same’. But that is not so. Lenin represented one of the living elements of the historical process. He personified the experience and the perspicacity of the most active section of the proletariat. His timely appearance on the arena of the revolution was necessary in order to mobilise the vanguard and provide it with an opportunity to rally the working class and the peasant masses. Political leadership in the crucial moments of historical turns can become just as decisive a factor as is the role of the chief command during the critical moments of war. History is not an automatic process. Otherwise, why leaders? Why parties? Why programmes? Why theoretical struggles?”.

Trotsky was not arguing here that Lenin, as an individual without the existence of the Bolsheviks, would have been sufficient. On the contrary, he explained in the same article that, “for Lenin’s slogans to find their way to the masses there had to exist cadres [experienced party activists with roots in the working class], even though numerically small at the beginning; there had to exist the confidence of the cadres in the leadership, a confidence based on the entire experience of the past. To cancel these elements from one’s calculations is simply to ignore the living revolution”.

The experience of the wave of failed revolutions in the wake of 1917 – which left the new and fragile workers’ state isolated – drove home again and again the vital necessity of parties of the ‘Bolshevik type’.

The writings of Trotsky and Lenin, aiming to politically arm the young Communist International, are enormously rich for a new generation joining the fight for socialism today. All the lessons of the previous decades were synthesised. While some aspects of individual articles may now be only of historical interest, the overwhelming majority are full of vital lessons. That does not mean that quoting Lenin or Trotsky, torn out of the context in which they were writing, is enough to be proven ‘correct’ in any given situation. The task of building a revolutionary party is complex and multifaceted. To grasp the fundamentals of Trotsky and Lenin’s approach requires, above all, understanding and internalising their method and applying it to today’s situation.

In the immediate period after 1917, it was hoped that other countries would quickly follow the lead of the Russian masses. As Trotsky put it in his balance sheet of the third world congress of the Communist International (1921): “In the most critical year for the bourgeoisie, the year 1919, the proletariat of Europe could undoubtedly have conquered state power with minimum sacrifices, had there been at its head a genuine revolutionary organisation, setting forth clear aims and capably pursuing them, ie a strong Communist Party. But there was none”. This, Trotsky explains, allowed the capitalist class to gain a breathing space and to stabilise the situation, using the parties and trade unions of the social-democratic parties (the Second International) whose leaders’ “efforts, both conscious and instinctive, were essentially directed towards the preservation of capitalist society”.

Therefore, longer-term tasks were posed, of building mass communist parties, with roots and authority in the working class, capable of leading the struggle for power. Tactics like the ‘united front’ were essential, where via common struggle it would be possible to demonstrate, in practice, the superiority of the communist parties to the millions who still looked to the mass social-democratic parties. In struggling to help the inexperienced communist parties, Lenin and Trotsky had to battle against the dangers of both ultraleft impatience and opportunism.

Twin dangers

These twin dangers remain today. In 2019, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) was convulsed by a serious political dispute, leading to two splits. We faced two groupings. One was moving rightwards towards political opportunism (now the ISA) and, during the dispute, was known as the ‘non-faction faction’ (NFF) because it was a clearly organised opposition but did not honestly and openly say so. The other grouping went in a sectarian ultraleft direction.

Many documents were written taking up the opportunist collapse of parts of the then CWI. Still claiming to adhere to Trotskyism, in practice, they adapted to the existing consciousness of the ‘radical’ middle class, moving away from basing themselves on the centrality of the working class in the struggle for socialism.

The split in a sectarian direction, centred on Izquierda Revolucionaria (IR) in the Spanish state, which had unified with the CWI – briefly, as it transpired – in 2017, was also answered during the debate. However, it is worth taking up some of what IR said in its balance sheet of the debate, For a Proletarian International, in Defence of Marxism, written after IR left the CWI. This is a useful illustration of an ultraleft misunderstanding of Trotsky’s approach to the revolutionary party. This mistake is not only made by the IR but also by some other organisations adhering to ‘Trotskyism’ from the Morenoite currents in Latin America. The IR attempts to use Trotsky’s article, The Class, the Party and the Leadership, in particular, to justify its mistaken approach.

Its document argues on a false basis, wrongly suggesting that the International Secretariat (IS) of the CWI believes that “the absence of ‘socialist consciousness’ or the delay in the consciousness of the masses is the dominant character in the situation”. It contrasts our alleged approach with their own. For example, of the 2011 revolutionary wave, the ‘Arab Spring’, the IR writes: “What was the key factor for the failure of these movements? Was it the ‘absence of socialist consciousness among the masses’, as the IS and the NFF claim, or was it the betrayals of the Stalinist, reformist and nationalist leaderships that were leading these processes, and the lack of a capable revolutionary party with a strategy to take power?” Further: “It is amazing that a leadership which calls itself ‘Trotskyist’ blames the masses in struggle to open the way to counter-revolution because of their ‘lack of traditions’ or their ‘low level of consciousness’. Instead of asking themselves about the role of different political actors, they repeat the shameful accusations that the reformists do against the workers and their allies for the lack of results”.

This is nonsense. The CWI has never ‘blamed’ ‘the masses’. On the contrary, our hallmark is our confidence in the capacity of the working class to change society. This does not mean, however, that the struggle to successfully transform society can be reduced simply to “the lack of a capable revolutionary party with a strategy to take power”. The existence of such a party is an essential factor, hence dedicating ourselves to striving to build one, or at least the kernel of it. However, Lenin and Trotsky understood that a party does not exist separately and unrelated to the living struggle, including the class balance of forces, and the consciousness of different sections of the working class.

The Bolsheviks could not have led a successful struggle for power in February 1917, exactly because of the consciousness of the working class at that stage. To say this is not to ‘blame’ the working class. An accurate assessment of the stage of the class struggle – not mistaking the first month of pregnancy for the ninth – is essential for any serious revolutionary party. Trotsky quotes Lenin in April 1917, in The History of the Russian Revolution: “We are not charlatans. We must base ourselves upon the consciousness of the masses. Even if it is necessary to be in a minority – so be it. It is a good thing to give up for a time the position of leadership; we must not be afraid to be in a minority”.

Further: “The real government is the soviet of workers’ deputies… In the soviet our party is a minority… What can we do? All we can do is explain patiently, insistently, systematically the error of their tactics. So long as we are in the minority, we will carry on the work of criticism, in order to free the masses from deceit. We do not want the masses to believe us on our say so; we are not charlatans. We want the masses to be freed by experience from their mistakes”.

Lenin’s approach was not, of course – as the IR accuses us – to passively wait for the development of some abstract ‘socialist consciousness’ but, rather, at each stage, to put forward demands that connected with the existing consciousness of the working class and then pointed it towards the necessity of seizing power. As Lenin predicted, the masses’ own experience, combined with the intervention of the Bolshevik Party – and, even before his formal adherence to the party, Trotsky, working in tandem with the Bolsheviks – transformed their political ‘consciousness’. Only on this basis was it possible for the working class to successfully break with capitalism in October 1917, with the Bolsheviks at its head.

That was during a revolution, where the working class and poor masses had entered the scene of history. The carnage of the first world war and the weakness of Russian capitalism had accelerated the process. Generally, revolutionary periods will develop over a longer period of time in more economically advanced capitalist countries. And there are, of course, many periods which are not revolutionary, including some which are reactionary, after the working class has suffered defeats. During these periods, it is not possible for the revolutionary minority to have any effective impact on the outlook of wider layers of the working class. Nonetheless, it has to fight to preserve its forces ready for the next phase of struggle. This was the case, for example, in the years after the defeat of the 1905 Russian revolution.

Consequences of 2008

An important starting point for answering IR, therefore, has to be to assess the situation today. The CWI has pointed to the crisis of capitalism, which even before the current downturn and its accompanying mass unemployment, increasingly meant impoverishment and instability for the majority. In the wake of the 2008 economic crisis we foresaw that mass movements and revolutions would develop. This transpired in countless countries worldwide, including the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. We understood how the sickness of the capitalist system would lead to leaps forward in the understanding of the working class in many countries in the world. This has been borne out and is reflected in the enthusiastic support that developed for left parties, such as Podemos in Spain, and left figures, like Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain.

However, as yet, the setbacks of the previous period have not been wholly overcome. The collapse of Stalinism and restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was a defeat for the working class internationally. The old Stalinist regimes bore no resemblance to genuine socialism. Nonetheless, they were based on a much-distorted form of a planned economy, and their implosion enabled a worldwide capitalist offensive against the working class. Under the impact of this, it was popularly accepted that the capitalist market was the only viable alternative, with public ownership and socialist planning widely discredited.

Traditional workers’ parties were largely transformed into openly capitalist parties, with their leaders no longer even paying lip service to socialism. Levels of independent working-class organisation, including trade union organisation, were pushed back. However, the objective strength of the working class, with its potential to transform society, has remained fundamentally intact. At the same time, far from the promise of increasing wealth and stability, capitalism, as we predicted, has increasingly offered a diet of instability, war and impoverishment.

Under the hammer blows of capitalist crises a new generation has begun to draw socialist conclusions. Why, then, do we say that the legacy of the previous period has not yet been fully overcome? Our accusers say that we wrongly put the blame for the failure of the Arab Spring on the “absence of socialist consciousness” among the masses, rather than the “betrayal of the Stalinist, reformist, and nationalist leaderships that were leading these processes”.

The betrayals and failures of the leaders of the workers’ movement are not in doubt. The CWI consistently puts demands on them and, when they retreat or betray, attempts to expose their responsibility for the defeats of the working class. Nonetheless, the way IR poses the question shows that it does not understand the character of the current period. The distinguishing feature of the Arab and North African revolutions was not that the mass organisations of the working class had rotten leaders but that no mass parties of the working class existed.

In Tunisia, there was the powerful trade union federation, the UGTT, with a history of some independence from the regime. In Egypt, two new trade union federations, not linked to the dictatorial regime, developed prior to and during the revolution. These federations were important, and with clear, determined leaderships that had not accommodated to the prevailing retreat from socialism of the previous era, could have played a decisive role leading the working class in a struggle for power as the revolutions unfolded. But, while ferment developed in their ranks, the legacy of the previous period meant that they did not move in this direction. As a consequence, no mass political organisations existed which the working class saw as their own. In Egypt, this vacuum allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to step in for a period.

This situation was not limited to the masses struggling against dictatorships in the Middle East. It also applied in most countries around the world. This is a completely different situation to the era of mass social-democratic and communist parties that – while they undoubtedly had rotten leaderships – were seen by significant sections of the working class and poor as ‘their’ parties, fighting for socialism. In the opening sentence of The Transitional Programme (1938), Trotsky declared that “the world political situation is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat”. In 2010, in his introduction to that pamphlet, Peter Taaffe, then general secretary of the Socialist Party, explained that it is not “just a crisis of leadership that we face but also of organisation, or a lack of it of the working class, as well as a clear programme”.

The IR stated: “It is not correct to idealise the left-reformists of the past to the detriment of the current ones, or the old Stalinist parties that in practice acted as a colossal obstacle to the advance of the forces of genuine Marxism”. We do not idealise any of the mass workers’ parties of the past, whose leaders acted to prop up capitalism in the 20th century in the face of repeated and heroic attempts by the working class to overthrow it. That does not mean, however, that their demise or transformation into capitalist parties after the collapse of Stalinism can be described as a positive removal of a colossal obstacle – because nothing replaced them. Now, decades later, the first hesitant steps towards new mass parties have developed.

The IR, in reality, does not even recognise the demise of what went before. In its document, the IR argues that it is “alien to the Marxist method” to say – as we do – that, in the New Labour era, the Labour Party in Britain was transformed into a capitalist party (for whatever reason, the IR never raised this difference in its discussions with the CWI). The Labour Party, of course, always had a leadership that acted in the interests of the capitalist class. Nonetheless, the New Labour era was a qualitative change. The party’s democratic structures, through which the working class was able to exert pressure on the leadership, were destroyed, with trade union affiliation formally remaining but with its power largely removed. Most importantly, wide sections of the working class no longer saw Labour as ‘their’ party.

The Corbyn era

The brief Corbyn era in Britain confirmed, rather than disproved, as IR argues, the transformation of Labour into a capitalist party. Jeremy Corbyn’s election was, in one sense, an accident of history, enabled by a Labour Party rule change originally planned to further undermine the role of the trade unions. When Corbyn scraped onto the ballot paper, there was a mass surge to vote for him, as tens of thousands of people saw the opportunity to elect someone with an anti-austerity programme as leader of a major party. It was this, rather than loyalty to Labour, which led to the surge. There are some similarities between this and the support in the US for Bernie Sanders to be selected as the candidate for the Democrats, a party that has always been, and remains, a wholly capitalist party.

The Corbyn wave did not turn Labour back into what Lenin called a “capitalist workers’ party”. Rather, it created two parties in one: a pro-capitalist party that continued to dominate the structures and a potential new party around Corbyn. Far from accommodating itself to Corbynism, the pro-capitalist wing fought ferociously to annihilate it.

Had the Labour left taken the approach we argued for, and mobilised the ranks of Corbyn supporters – the working-class elements of which were often far to the left of the leadership – to take on and defeat the Labour right, a mass workers’ party would have emerged from Labour. Responsibility for the failure, therefore, undoubtedly lies with the reformist leaders. Nonetheless, this process – alongside the experiences of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and Sanders – tells us something about the still low levels of working-class organisation and consciousness at this stage.

Undoubtedly, they were very important first steps to creating mass political expressions for the anti-austerity struggle. They were also characterised, however, by their formless, transient character, dominated by middle-class ‘young professionals’, whose living standards and prospects were being driven down in the age of austerity. These formations won electoral support for a period, but they lacked any deep-rooted, active participation among the working class. Many, in particular Podemos, have structures reliant on ‘horizontalism’ and online polling, rather than any form of workers’ discussion and democracy. Syriza won a general election but rapidly betrayed the working class. Podemos, in a coalition with the Spanish social democrats, PSOE, is now on the same road.

The severe limitations of these formations have not prevented the CWI from orienting energetically to the fresh layers who have moved into them. Nor are we suggesting that the current era will offer nothing more developed than these first attempts at left formations. On the contrary, we are confident that, on the basis of their own experience, broad sections of the working class will draw the conclusion that they need their own political voice, and set out to forge mass parties. We do not argue that these parties will be stable, or necessarily long-lasting, formations, although the crisis of capitalism means that, if they do not adopt a clear programme for the socialist transformation of society, they can quickly face decline, to be replaced by more radical formations.

A significant minority can go directly from inactivity to joining a revolutionary party. But the mass of the working class will first look for seemingly easier solutions, only drawing revolutionary conclusions on the basis of experience, combined with the intervention of revolutionary Marxists. Even short-lived mass parties – if they provide a forum for workers to test out the different programmes that will inevitably emerge and draw the necessary conclusions – can be an inestimable, crucial step forward towards mass revolutionary parties.

The level of working-class organisation is obviously bound up with socialist consciousness. The existence of a mass workers’ party is both an indication of a significant section of the working class having a sense of its own power to carry out a socialist transformation of society, and is also a forum – with elements of a workers’ parliament – within which the working class can debate the way forward. Trotsky was insistent on this. That is why, in discussions with his supporters in the US during 1938, Trotsky put emphasis on how “in the United States the situation is the working class needs a party – its own party. This is the first step in political education”. By putting this forward he was neither ‘blaming’ the US working class for not having founded a party, nor was he downplaying the crucial role of the Trotskyists in fighting for their ideas within such a party. His approach had the same method as ours today. We raise our dual role in both fighting for the working class to create its own party and building a revolutionary party which fights for the leadership of the organisations of the working class.

The need for a revolutionary party is essential. “Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer”, as Trotsky summed it up in Lessons of October. It is possible, particularly in countries where the capitalist regime is very weak, for mass uprisings to overthrow the existing order without a party. However, the working class and poor would not be able to consolidate their rule and begin to build a new society without having constructed a mass revolutionary party.

Soviets put the question

Nonetheless, Trotsky never imagined that it was not also necessary to call for, and participate in, broad workers’ organisations. Such organisations can develop very quickly in the course of a revolution. The soviets were thrown up by the revolution and could not have existed outside of a revolutionary period. Without the existence of the Bolshevik Party, its authoritative leadership, deep roots in the working class, and a clear programme with which the working class could lead a struggle for power, the soviets would not have broken with capitalism. The existence of the soviets posed the question of which class should rule but did not resolve it. However, for the Bolsheviks, initially in a small minority, the soviets gave them a forum within which to ‘patiently explain’ their programme. The soviets were also authoritative bodies through which the new society could begin to be built.

Neither Lenin nor Trotsky argued that the Russian soviets would necessarily be the exact model for all subsequent revolutions. Some form of mass democratic workers’ organisation was an inevitable part of the working class’s moves in the direction of power, however. That mass parties did not develop in the 2011 revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, never mind widespread workers’ committees or even a call for them, is an indication of the limits of the consciousness of that first revolutionary wave.

The next wave will be on a higher level. The need to build revolutionary parties is more urgent than ever. Doing so successfully requires not abstract schemas but an ability to assess the current stage of the class struggle, to be able to put forward a programme that can effectively point towards the working class breaking with capitalism and taking power in its own hands. Trotsky’s writings are an inestimable resource for the new generation taking on this task. The CWI, based on the methods of Leon Trotsky, has correctly analysed the main features of the political situation and tasks facing the working class. We will have opportunities in the coming era to take part – alongside others who will, undoubtedly, on the basis of experience, draw common conclusions – in the creation of mass organisations of the working class capable of leading the struggle for socialism on an international basis.