Tony Cliff


T is for Trotsky the hero
who had to take all of the blame

(January 1981)

From Socialist Review, 1981 : 1, 19 January–15 February 1981, p. 36.
Tony Cliff interviewed by Simon Turner.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In the whole history of the working class movement not one person embodied the combination of the heroic and the tragic to a higher degree than Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky as President of the St Petersburg soviet was central in organising the October revolution. He built the Red Army of millions. Jointly with Lenin he headed the Communist International which led millions of workers around the world. But Trotsky ended his life as a hounded and isolated revolutionary, with very few followers and very little influence on events.

In 1906 Trotsky had developed his theory of permanent revolution that guided his thoughts and actions until the end of his life. The kernel of this theory was recognition of the interaction between international capitalism and the national backwardness of Tsarist Russia. This intersection, Trotsky argued, meant it was necessary to combine the coming peasant democratic revolution to destroy feudalism in Russia, with the proletarian socialist revolution, the revolution in one country with the international revolution. Trotsky surpassed even Lenin with the insight of this theory, arguing for the inevitable impact of the revolution in Russia on the international labour movement, and the inescapable defeat of the Russian proletariat if the international revolution failed to come to its aid.

The October revolution was a positive affirmation of Trotsky’s theory while the isolation of the Russian workers after the defeat of the German revolution was a negative affirmation.

A new chapter in Trotsky’s life began with his fight against the bureaucracy, for workers’ democracy in Russia itself, and against the transformation of the revolutionary International into a department of the Stalinist state. Expelled from Russia in 1929, Trotsky was hounded by Stalin’s agents all over Europe, most of his family were murdered, and he was forced to spend his last years in Mexico. Yet Trotsky never wavered, and his most brilliant writings are produced in this period.

The Stalinist leadership led to a continuous series of defeats of the international working class. Again and again semi-revolutionary or even revolutionary situations that could have been transformed into victorious revolutions ended with victory for reaction.

The worst defeat of the international working class was in Germany in 1933. The significance of Hitler’s victory in opening the door to international reaction was as great as the victory of the Bolsheviks in 1917 in opening the door to international revolution. But the Communist International under Stalin made no criticism of the ‘social fascist’ policy of the German Communist Party which helped Hitler come to power, by proclaiming the reformists rather than the fascists as the main enemy. Again and again Trotsky’s analysis proved correct. However, this in no way helped Trotsky in spreading his ideas and achieving any significant success.

In the face of the monstrous machine of Hitler, crushing the bones and the souls of millions, international Stalinism was transformed into a religion, the opiate of the people in a heartless world.

At the time it was extremely painful to reject Stalin – as painful as an addict trying to stop taking a drug. I remember my friend getting a pair of shoes from the Soviet Union and really kissing them, not because he was stupid but because of the terrible pain and fear of the future. In January 1933 Hitler came to power. In February 1934 the fascists smashed the Austrian working class and in the same month they went into armed action in Paris (although they were rebuffed). Every morning when we got up the first thing we did was to look at the newspaper to see where the workers had been beaten yesterday. The attraction of Russia and the mass Stalinist party was almost irresistible. It isolated the Trotskyists. They were persecuted, including physically, by the Stalinists. I remember how the Palestinian Communist Party published a leaflet denouncing two people giving their names and addresses as Trotskyist fascist police spies. The result was that the two were arrested immediately by the British police.

But the physical persecution was not the main thing. It was the feeling of helplessness in the face of the massive Nazi military machine on the one hand and its opponent in the form of the Russian Red Army, between Hitlerism and Stalinism.

What about the Moscow trials? After all, the accusation that the leaders of the October revolution, the majority of Lenin’s Central Committee, the President of the Comintern, and the main leaders of the Red Army were all Nazi agents must have looked so stupid as to undermine the credibility of Stalin and help Trotsky. In fact it did the opposite. The fear of Nazism and impotence in the face of it was encouraged by the Moscow trials and helped Stalin not Trotsky.

Trotsky’s rational thinking in no way satisfied the craving of defeated workers. In every new crisis what was necessary above all was a mass revolutionary party to transform the situation into a victorious revolution. But again and again such a party was not to be, and more and more it became difficult to build such a party. The pain and the impotence, leading to greater impotence, greater pain and greater defeats, benefited Stalinism on the one hand and fascism on the other.

In the tragic series of defeats of the Trotskyist movement (better perhaps to say Trotskyist circles), the historical and the biographical can hardly be separated. The leader of millions in 1917–1921 became a leader of tiny groups. He himself paid with blood for the defeat of the movement and his ideas. It is true our history is full of martyrs who gave their life for the cause; from the 30,000 in the Paris Commune to individuals like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. But Trotsky paid a higher price than any one of those, they were murdered only once. He was murdered again and again. Of his four children two died in Stalin’s concentration camps, one was forced into suicide in Berlin and one murdered in Paris. Trotsky’s first wife languished to death in Siberia, and finally Trotsky himself was murdered by Stalin’s assassin.

To the shallow observer the last 18 years of Trotsky’s life look like an arid period. History will prove that the basic ideas of Trotsky remain a most important heritage – his defence of internationalism, his defence of workers’ democracy and opposition to all bureaucracy, his complete confidence in the unlimited ability of the working class to achieve freedom. In this sense the future belongs to Trotsky and Trotskyism.

Last updated on 21 September 2019