Tony Cliff

Trotskyism after Trotsky

Chapter 6:

If the Stalinist regime had not survived the war, as Trotsky prophesied, of course the Stalinist parties of France and Italy would not have had the massive power to preserve capitalist order in these countries. Similarly, the German working class would not have been paralysed after the fall of Hitler.

The survival of state capitalism led to the survival of Western capitalism, for it was in the interests of both to avoid revolution. But this is a system of hostile brothers and the former wartime allies were soon involved in a massively costly arms race – the Cold War. This was the basis for the permanent arms economy that operated in the West.

The linkage between the existence of the Stalinist regime in Russia and deflected permanent revolution in China and Cuba is more obvious. It was the existence of a strong Russia that inspired the Maoist armies to go on fighting against Japanese imperialism for many years, and also against Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. It was the example of forceful and speedy industrialisation of backward Russia under Stalin that inspired the Stalinist parties and emerging governments throughout the Third World and was a model for them to follow. The Stalinist policy of allying with local pro-capitalist forces meant that imperialism was not overthrown by workers’ revolution. Imperialism was frequently able to disengage itself politically from the colonies without having to give up its economic stranglehold. Where state capitalist policies were followed alliances with the Russian bloc might be forged, but the situation of workers was still one of exploitation and subordination to capitalist rule.

Therefore, once Trotsky’s prognoses about the fate of the Stalinist regime in Russia was not realised, the rest of his prognoses – about developments in the advanced capitalist countries as well as in the backward countries – also failed to materialise.

The troika – state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, and deflected permanent revolution – make a unity, a totality, grasping the changes in the situation of humanity after the Second World War. This is an affirmation of Trotskyism in general, while partly its negation. Marxism as a living theory must continue as it is, and change at the same time. However, the troika was not conceived as a unity and did not come into being in a flash. It was the result of several long explorations into economic, social and political developments in three portions of the globe: Russia and Eastern Europe, the advanced industrialised capitalist countries, and the Third World. The paths of research criss-crossed each other again and again. But it was only at the end of the process that the interrelationships between the different spheres of research became clear. Only at the top of the mountain can one see the relationship between the different footpaths designed to reach the summit and from this vantage point the analysis turns into a synthesis, the Marxist dialectic emerging victorious.

Grasping the real changes in the structure of the economy, society and politics in the world, with the massive unevennesses tearing it apart, makes it possible to grasp the real, actual, concrete possibilities for revolutionaries to place themselves in the process of change.

Today the Stalinist regime in Russia and Eastern Europe is no more. World capitalism is not propelled forward by the permanent arms economy. The state capitalist road to economic growth in the Third World has been abandoned as closer global economic integration narrows the room for manoeuvre of local ruling classes or groups aspiring to play that role. Across the world – West, East, and in the developing countries – millions of workers have been sacked; tens of millions of unemployed live side by side with an increasing number of millionaires and multi-millionaires.

The troika – the definition of Russia as state capitalist, the permanent arms economy as an explanation for the post-war economic boom in the advanced capitalist countries, and deflected permanent revolution as an explanation for the success of Maoism in the Third World – might look irrelevant to today’s Marxists. But it is not so.

First of all, ideas survive, quite often for a long time after the material conditions that brought them to life have disappeared; a ripple in the water caused by the dropping of a stone continues even after the stone stops moving.

Thus illusions about the Stalinist regime still survive among supporters and bourgeois opponents alike. The idea that state ownership of industry and economic planning, even without workers’ democracy, is equal to socialism, is still alive.

It was the full or near full employment that followed the outbreak of the Second World War that strengthened the attraction of Keynesianism. The theory of the permanent arms economy has been the only serious Marxist alternative to Keynesianism to explain the situation at the time. Keynesianism is still alive and kicking and is today being presented as the economic alternative to free market economics.

The ideas of Maoism are still quite attractive to people, especially in the Third World. The image of Che Guevara still has a great resonance in Latin America. The idea that only the working class organising itself in a struggle for socialism led by revolutionary Marxists can achieve revolution is not widely held in national liberation movements.

There is another reason why the three theories we deal with need to be studied. It is to do with the nature and continuity of the Marxist tradition. As Trotsky put it, the revolutionary party is the memory of the working class. Prior to Trotsky’s death this memory, the actual continuity of the movement, was represented by a mass of individuals. This can be shown in concrete terms.

The First International was made up of relatively large organisations, and although there was a break of some two decades between the end of the First and the establishment of the Second International, many thousands who were members of the First joined the Second. The Third International (the Communist International, or Comintern) came into being as a result of large splits within the Second International. The Italian Socialist Party, at its conference in Bologna in September 1919, voted to join the Communist International, adding 300,000 members. In Germany the Independent Social Democrats, which split in 1917 from the Social Democratic Party, also decided to join the Communist International, adding another 300,000 members. In 1920 the French Socialist Party joined, adding 140,000 members. In June 1919 the Bulgarian Socialists voted to affiliate, bringing 35,478 members. The Yugoslav Socialist Party, also a mass party, joined. The Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party split in December 1920, the Communist Left taking over half the membership and establishing a Communist Party of 350,000 members. A separate split in the Social Democratic Party of the German speaking minority added further forces, and after their unification the party claimed 400,000 members. The Norwegian Labour Party joined the Comintern in spring 1919. In Sweden the majority of the Socialist Party, after a split, joined the Comintern, adding another 17,000. [137]

Sadly, there was hardly any continuity in terms of individual revolutionaries between the Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky in the early 1920s and the Trotskyist movement in the 1930s and after the Second World War. Crushed between the massive influence of Stalin and fear of Hitler, Trotskyist organisation always consisted of tiny groups on the margins of the mass movements. Thus the number of Trotskyists in Berlin on the eve of Hitler’s victory was 50! [138] Despite the Spanish Revolution of 1936, in September 1938, according to the report of the Founding Conference of the Fourth International, the membership of the Spanish section was between ten and 30! [139]

The First, Second and Third Internationals came into life on periods of working class advance; the Trotskyist organisations were born during a dire period of working class history – the victory of Nazism and Stalinism. Without understanding why for two generations Trotskyism was isolated and powerless and therefore Trotskyists were prone to losing their way, one must come to completely pessimistic conclusions about the future. Understanding the past makes it clear that Trotskyism, as a link in the continuity of Marxism, is coming into its own.

Now Stalinism, the great bulwark preventing the advance of revolutionary Marxism, of Trotskyism, has gone. Capitalism in the advanced countries is no longer expanding and so the words of the 1938 Transitional Programme that “there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses’ living standards” fits reality again. [140] The classic theory of permanent revolution, as argued by Trotsky, is back on the agenda, as shown by the Indonesian Revolution in 1998.

The troika explains why for a time, a long time, the existing system – capitalism – persevered, even if it adopted a number of guises. At the same time it always pointed to the processes undermining this stability: for some time these processes were at the molecular level and barely visible on he surface. But eventually quantity changes into quality and the system as a whole is racked by crises and instability. Then, as Marx put it, humanity “will leap from its seat and exultantly exclaim, ‘Well burrowed, old mole!’” [141]




137. T. Cliff, Lenin: Revolution Besieged (London, 1987), pp. 216–218.

138. T. Cliff, Trotsky: The Darker the Night the Brighter the Star, op. cit., p. 155.

139. Ibid., p. 286.

140. L. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (London, 1980).

141. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, vol.11 (Moscow, 1979), p. 185. The reference is to Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 1, scene 5.


Last updated on 21 June 2020