Underrated: Trotsky

The ideas of the martyred pioneer of mayhem still remain potent today

Underrated
Leon Trotsky: The maven of mayhem? (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Leon Trotsky may have been murdered in 1940 in Mexico City — at the third attempt by Stalin’s men — when NKVD agent Ramón Mercader planted an ice axe in his head, but he lives on at the top of today’s Labour Party. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, was asked in a 2006 interview with the Trotskyist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, “Who has been most significant in terms of your thinking?” McDonnell’s response was, “The fundamental Marxist writers of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, basically.” 

Why does Trotsky appear in this triumvirate? After all, Stalin had many other leading Bolsheviks killed — of the seven members of the party’s Politburo in the year of revolution 1917, one was Lenin, another Stalin and the other five, who included Trotsky, all came to an end on Stalin’s orders. But today one would have to travel very far to find a Zinovievist, a Bubnovite or a Kamenevist. Trotsky had a higher profile in the West from early on in that his impeccably Jewish birth name, Lev Bronstein, was grist to the mill for the all too successful peddlers of Judaeo-Bolshevik conspiracy fantasies. A more important part of the explanation is, of course, that Trotsky, unlike his unfortunate comrades, went into exile in 1929.

In the West, Trotsky found many sympathisers who were keen to hear his account of how his leadership had won the Russian Civil War for the Reds — a very plausible claim as Trotsky was a brilliant military strategist — and how the revolution had then been betrayed by Stalin. There was an all too willing audience for Trotsky’s message that Bolshevism was pure at its core and had only been tarnished by Stalin’s crimes. Trotsky set up the Fourth International — in contrast to Stalin’s Comintern, the Third International — to spread his gospel; this survived his untimely death, although succumbing to fissiparousness over the coming decades.

In fact, Trotsky’s hands were very far from clean. In his leadership of the Red Army he had been a great advocate and innovator of terror. He had a passionate belief in party discipline and that revolution justified most forms of morally reprehensible behaviour. 

Sir Roger Scruton, in his magisterial Dictionary of Political Thought, perhaps sums up Trotskyist claims to benevolence best: “Trotskyists usually claim to have more respect for democratic procedure and human rights than Stalinists, which is plausible enough, since they could hardly have less.” Throughout the Cold War, Trotsky’s adherents managed to present themselves as a benign Marxist alternative to the obvious failings of the Soviet Union. They received rather more credit for this than they deserved — Trotsky believed that the Soviet Union under Stalin was still a workers’ state, even if it had a noxious degenerate leadership. In Trotsky’s eyes, a workers’ state was always superior to bourgeois democracy.

With some exceptions — most notably the Socialist Workers Party, which believes that the Soviet Union had reverted to capitalism, albeit state capitalism, under Stalin — Trotsky’s later followers, such as Isaac Deutscher, continued to champion the idea that the Soviet Union was superior to the free world.

Trotsky’s organisational genius has very much outlived him; he spent his exile postulating ideas of how his adherents should organise, and these schemes are still practised by them today. Transitional demands, impossibilism and most importantly entryism, still feature in the Trotskyist vocabulary. They are all ideas with which McDonnell and his ilk are imbued.

The proletariat is not sufficiently advanced, or so Trotskyists argue, to grasp the full plight of its condition and is thus not yet organising in sufficient numbers to make the only solution, world revolution, a viable prospect. By making interim demands on matters such as pay, the vanguard Trotskyists can galvanise greater numbers. Even better if these demands cannot be met under the rubric of capitalism — the proletariat realises that the system itself is what is holding the workers back. The trouble with impossibilism is that demands thought to have been impossible under capitalism — let us say a £10 minimum wage — have all too often been easily accommodated within the system.

The most malodorous Trotskyist nostrum today is entryism. It is the idea that a small group of committed, disciplined “revolutionaries” working under the rubric of democratic centralism — the idea that a revolutionary organisation can have internal debate (although even this often falls by the wayside) but once a decision is made all members are bound by it — can take over a much larger, diverse, ill-disciplined and flabby party. It is what the Trotskyists of Militant did to some constituency Labour parties in the 1980s. It is what is now happening on a larger scale to the Labour Party as a whole. It would be ridiculous to claim the Corbyn phenomenon is entirely a product of entryism — there are at most 6,000 Trots in the UK, and Labour’s membership now stands at more than 500,000. Yet it is an important part of the story — a part which has not yet received sufficient prominence.