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Pierre Frank

Eighty Years Ago

(Autumn 1959)

From Fourth International (Amsterdam), No. 7, Autumn 1959, pp. 13–15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Next November 7th will complete eighty years since Leon Trotsky was born. By his theoretical contribution and his militant life, he takes his place in the class of the most eminent proletarian revolutionaries, that of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Rosa Luxemburg. But if these others are accepted as such in the workers’ movement (which does not mean that their teachings are not trodden underfoot), the place of Trotsky, even at the present beginnings of “destalinization,” has not yet been recognized. True, the crudest Stalinist lies are no longer repeated, for they would no longer find any listeners; but a number of lies and false ideas continue to drag on, including among those who think that they have been delivered from Stalinism. How many try to get out of it by saying: The struggle between Trotsky and Stalin is ancient history, outlived, a personal rivalry about more or less abstract theories, and Trotskyism – apart from a few faithful followers – no longer exists. This was not at all the opinion of Stalin who, after claiming that Trotskyism was dead, went on setting up – in vain – the most monstrous judicial machinations to kill it. Nor is it the opinion of Stalin’s present successors, either. If they have not rehabilitated Trotsky and the Left Opposition, it is because they realize that it is not outlived ancient history, but one of the burning problems of the present day.

The figure and the teachings of Trotsky will inevitably find the place they deserve in the course of the anti-bureaucratic movement of the masses, and not in the bureaucracy’s measures of self-defense to protect its political power and privileges.

Among some who perhaps do not lack sympathy but do lack a sense of history, what contributes to their failure to appreciate Leon Trotsky is the contrast between the last part of his life (from 1928 on) and his period of glory and power in the first years of the Russian Revolution. Max Eastman wrote in a recent article that Trotsky was a man of indecision who did not know how to fight against Stalin – all this based on a “psychoanalysis” for the American petty bourgeois. Without expressing themselves so stupidly, there are not lacking people who think that if after all Trotsky was defeated by Stalin, it was because he pierced himself with his own sword at a given moment by his vision of the glorious period of the Russian Revolution, without understanding the new situation that was then opening up. It is, however, easy to verify the fact that it was Trotsky who really understood the new situation, whereas Stalin did not have the faintest idea of where he would be led by the struggle he started after Lenin’s death. Power not only contributes to corrupt those who wield it; it also sets them on a pedestal which deforms their real stature. If someone like Trotsky lost the power, that must be his fault, and he was not so great a man as all that – such is the reasoning of petty-bourgeois thinkers. We are convinced that the future will say that the whole greatness of Trotsky was shown most clearly in that last and so dramatic period of his existence – such a period as none of the other great revolutionaries had to go through. Marx and Engels at the end of their days saw the workers’ movement accept the doctrines that they – for a long time almost alone – had developed and advocated. Rosa was assassinated in a revolutionary period. Lenin died respected, just at the turning in the Russian Revolution, before he could join battle against the rising bureaucracy. It was to Trotsky, who, together with Lenin, had had the glory of leading the proletariat to power, that it fell to carry on that struggle. In it, the state that emerged from the first victorious proletarian revolution became the instrument of a narrow-minded and reactionary social layer of the new society, who systematically resorted to methods of violence within the workers’ movement against the revolutionaries, to a degree that even the reformists had not reached. In the Soviet Union alone, the number of members of the Bolshevik Party liquidated by Stalin – according to the statement of Khrushchev at the session of the Central Committee in which he defeated Malenkov, Molotov, and Kaganovich – reached 1,600,000. This figure alone indicates what was then the power of the bureaucratic reaction. Its hatred was aimed with its full force against Trotsky.

Trotsky’s third exile never had an equal – not so much because of the agents of Stalin who never ceased to exist around Trotsky and Leon Sedov; but this exile was in practice doubled by a cloistering imposed by various capitalist governments and by the interventions of the Soviet government. True, Trotsky could leave his home, engage in physical exercise (walking, fishing, hunting, etc.), but it was in fact forbidden to him to take a direct part himself in the workers’ movement. It is necessary to recall the rage poured out by the Soviet press when it was learned that Trotsky had left Istanbul to give a lecture in Copenhagen. The lion had escaped from his cage; few interventions were necessary to make the Social-Democratic Danish government understand what attitude it must take. Trotsky, a man of the masses to the highest degree, a militant the essential part of whose life had been passed in workers’ organizations, in fact during this last exile found himself in a sort of prison with invisible bars, for he could communicate with the world and especially with the workers’ movement only through visitors under the more or less discreet control of the police of the country he was in.

What is more, he had no exchange of thoughts, no relations, with the workers’ leaders of his generation: the Social-Democracy and Stalinism had divided up between them the old leaders of the workers’ movement. The more recent strata – those of the First World War and its postwar period – provided the elements for the bureaucratic apparatuses. Those who gathered around him were quite young militants, without a past, without training. It is easy to understand that this great difference in age and experience added to his isolation from the big labor formations kept up by apparatuses.

On the occasion of the publication this year of his Diary for the years 1934–35, some persons have discovered a “human” side to Trotsky. That is because they never knew how to read Trotsky. It is not at all hard to see in all his works how much he understands – because he shares – the feelings of the masses risen up against all oppression. And with him, as with Marxism’s other great ones, these feelings take on all the more force in that they find their source in the understanding of causes and in the conviction that mankind now possesses the means to put an end to those inhuman conditions in which the great majority of them live. Nobody was more sorely tried than he and Natalia by the most hideous manifestations of Stalinism; those who were at their side saw how they suffered each time that their children were struck down by Stalinism. But they also saw the firmness with which they faced it, and how Trotsky in his grief redoubled his strength to carry on the struggle to which he had devoted his existence.

It is not simple to summarize Trotsky’s theoretical contribution to Marxism, so considerable is it.

Above all, there is the theory of the permanent revolution, formulated when he was 26, in connection with Czarist Russia, but which, because of the trend taken by the world revolution – from the USSR toward the East, in colonial and semi-colonial countries – contains its strategic basis for nearly two thirds of humanity in our times. While the Stalinist conceptions about “socialism in a single country” and “revolution by stages” have been swept away by such gigantic facts as the Chinese Revolution, the theory of the permanent revolution is still officially ignored by some, reviled by others, who remain in tow to native bourgeoisies without strength and without future.

The fundamental strategy for the struggle for power in the advanced capitalist countries (united front and transitional programme) had been formulated by the Communist International at its IIIrd and IVth Congresses, in fact by Lenin and Trotsky. It was defended and systematically elaborated by Trotsky against Stalinist revisions (sometimes sectarian, sometimes opportunist, conceptions of the united front – renunciation of the struggle for power and a transitional programme, and a policy of alliances with wings of the bourgeoisie, such as the Popular Front etc.), Trotsky further proceeded to study in a practically exhaustive way declining capitalism’s forms of defense (fascism, Bonapartism).

The creation of a first workers’ state in an economically backward country and its isolation in the world raised the most complex problems on every plane. The victory of the bureaucracy and its absolute power under the tyrannical leadership of Stalin helped to aggravate all these problems. It is to Trotsky that we are indebted for the greatest clarity about these questions. On the problems of industrialization, planning, the proportions of the various branches of the economy, relations with the peasantry, relations of economic questions with soviet democracy, on political problems in the workers’ state (separation of state and party, plurality of parties, etc.), on cultural problems, on all problems posed today with a force rendered doubly explosive, both because of the level attained by the Soviet Union and because of the Stalinist methods of repressing independent initiative in any field whatever – on all these problems Trotsky provided the correct method of approach, and often indeed solutions that are still valid today. That the bureaucracy, forced to take action along lines indicated by him so many years ago, should continue to manifest hostility toward Trotsky, without however resorting to the worst calumnies of the Stalin era, is easy to understand: at the basis of all Trotsky’s answers there is to be found as the essential element the intervention of the masses by the re-establishment of soviet democracy.

We are leaving aside very many manifestations of Trotsky’s thought in the most varied fields, in which most often he no more than sketched out the way of treating them, but which will unquestionably constitute for future Marxists – as is the case for very many passages in the work of Marx – a guide for tackling new problems.

There is in Trotsky’s work one point on which many an admirer of today is skeptical: that is his creation of the Fourth International and his conviction that it was, as early as before the Second World War, indispensable for ensuring the future of revolutionary Marxism and of the workers’ movement. We shall not take up this whole question again here, where the militants of the Fourth International have so often had occasion to deal with it. We wish only to insist on the continuity of the international and internationalist activity of Trotsky. He had been one of the representatives of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party to the Second International, and had seen its weaknesses; he had been at the foundation of the Third International, had there, together with Lenin, played the leading role, and had tried to make it into a genuine international leadership of the revolutionary workers’ movement; and had seen that one of the essential factors in its disintegration had consisted of abandoning an internationalist conception in favor of “socialism in a single country.” To that it must be added that Trotsky had taken not at all lightly the error he had committed, compared to Lenin, on the question of the party. It was necessary to keep revolutionary Marxist principles intact, including that of the party – and, after 1914, there could be no question of anything except an international party. It is there that is to be found the explanation of the immense efforts expended by Trotsky in his last years on the turbulent problems of an organization so numerically weak as the Fourth International, efforts which remain incomprehensible to those who do not understand that in so doing Trotsky was showing that he had adopted the Leninist conception of the party. On this question too, we are sure that the future will show that Trotsky was right. No one can yet foresee the forms of organization by which we shall pass from today’s Fourth International of cadres to tomorrow’s Fourth International of mass parties, but for us there is no doubt that the mass revolutionary Marxist movement of tomorrow will connect up with the Third International of the time of Lenin and Trotsky through the Fourth International founded in 1938 under Trotsky’s leadership.


The error that Trotsky most often committed in more than one circumstance was to be ahead, and even very much ahead, of events. In that also, it may be said in passing, Trotsky found himself in the company of Marx and Engels. Although the brakes of reformism and the Soviet bureaucracy continue to have a strong effect on the mass movement throughout the world, they have lost much of their power. There is very little left of the Stalin cult five years after his death. And so we can, on this eightieth anniversary of Trotsky’s birth, affirm with the greatest confidence that on his ninetieth anniversary his memory and his work will be honored by the great masses of the entire world.

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