Ernest Mandel’s reply to my critique of Trotsky’s Marxism requires some comment. It may be most rewarding to consider the three fundamental questions he raises, and focus discussion on these. Most of the local issues at dispute will be resolved in so doing. The whole aim of my analysis was to try and reconstruct the unity of Trotsky’s thought and practice as a Marxist: its singular character and coherence. Mandel’s reply renounces any attempt to seek such a unity. Chronologically, he separates the Trotsky of 1904 from that of 1905 and that of 1912 from that of 1917; the Trotsky of 1926 is dissociated from that of 1922. Structurally, Trotsky’s thought is divorced from his practice as a politician. My purpose was to show that the differentia specifica of Trotsky’s activity taken as a whole may not simply be identified with abstract principles. Mandel makes virtually no reference throughout to Trotsky’s style of leadership within the party, his role as a military commander or his record as a state administrator. It is thus important to emphasize, at the outset, that Mandel has provided selective criticisms of the theses of the original essay. He has not provided a counter-theory of Trotsky’s Marxism. By opting for this course, he has run the risk of empiricism. A corollary of this is a recurring tendency to revert to the traditional comparison Trotsky-Stalin, from the impasse of which it was one of the purposes of the essay to free debate. The struggle between Trotsky and Stalin in the ’twenties is often seen as a struggle between principles. Yet the polarization Trotsky-Stalin was a disaster, as Lenin in his will had predicted it would be. Today, the necessary point of departure to assess Trotsky and Stalin is Lenin. This is the axiom which governed the course of the whole argument. By dividing Trotsky’s thought into discrete episodes, separating it from his practice, and relating it to an abstract antipode, Mandel has prevented himself from situating Trotsky properly within history or Marxism.

Mandel denies that Trotsky showed a consistent sociologism and a constant underestimation of the autonomous role of political institutions. The initial period of Trotsky’s career—1902–17—is crucial here. Mandel’s argument is two-fold. He denies that Trotsky’s model of the revolutionary party was derived from the German spd—the idea of a party coextensive with the working class, as opposed to Lenin’s model in What is to be Done? Yet the only occasion on which he wrote on the party as such was in his virulent attack on Lenin of 1904 (Nashi Politicheskye Zadachi). Deutscher explicitly comments : ‘To this conception of a party acting as a locum tenens for the proletariat (i.e. Trotsky’s caricature of Lenin’s, conception—N.K.), he opposed Axelrod’s plan for a ‘broadly based party’ modelled on European social democratic parties’.footnote1 The same pamphlet was prolific in encomia of the Menshevik leaders, the main protagonists of such a model for Russia. Two years later, writing Results and Prospects, Trotsky expressed the greatest suspicion of the Western Social-Democratic parties, but this did not lead him to revise his notion of the revolutionary party, but to forget the concept altogether. The result was the unmediated reliance on mass forces, the ‘social-revolutionary fatalism’ which he himself later confessed.footnote2

Mandel, however, claims that it was Lenin, not Trotsky, who to a large extent borrowed from the theoreticians of German and Austrian Social-Democracy in his theory of party organization. Such a statement is astonishing, when one considers that the whole emphasis of Lenin’s theory was on the creation of a party of professional revolutionaries dedicated to making the revolution, a notion anathema to Kautsky and Adler. What else was the historic split with the Mensheviks based upon? It is no accident that Trotsky was quite unable to comprehend the significance of this at the time. There is no evidence that at any stage thereafter Trotsky genuinely learnt the lesson of Lenin’s theory of the party. In 1917, he rallied decisively to the Bolsheviks and played a commanding role during the October Revolution. But Mandel himself involuntarily shows the continuing limitation of his political thought, when he says that: ‘Trotsky understood that unity with the Mensheviks was impossible from the moment that the Mensheviks’ conciliatory policy (his italics) in the 1917 revolution became clear to him.’footnote3 Precisely. Trotsky rallied to Lenin, not because of his organisational theory of the party, which was the necessary historical rationale of his split with the Mensheviks, but because of his insurrectional policy of 1917. No-one should underestimate the importance of this conversion. But it was just the difference between these two that created the persistent doubt and mistrust of Trotsky within the Bolshevik Party after the October Revolution.

The whole subsequent history of the inner-party struggle is quite incomprehensible unless this fundamental fact is assimilated. Mandel nowhere confronts the issue. His only reference to it is a quote from Lenin to the effect that after 1917 ‘there was no better Bolshevik than Trotsky’. It so happens, however, that this ‘quotation’ is mere hearsay, as Deutscher (whom Mandel cites for his source) makes clear.footnote4 There is no firm evidence that Lenin ever made such a statement in conversation. There is evidence, however, of a negative nature: the fact is that in all the voluminous writings of Lenin after 1917, he never commented on Trotsky’s Marxism or the character of his conversion to Bolshevism. This silence, when he had so many opportunities of getting the record straight, is surely curious. His laconic comment on Trotsky in his will is the only secure judgment that we have.

During the ’thirties, of course, Trotsky did indeed give tremendous emphasis to the role of the party in the making of history. But, as I pointed out, this emphasis, which took the form of attempting to launch a fourth international, only reflected his inability to achieve a genuine appropriation of Lenin’s theory. But the consciousness of past error tended to produce new ones. Trotsky never deeply studied or experienced Lenin’s theory of the party or its relation to society. When he tried to reproduce it in the ’thirties, he caricatured it—giving it a voluntarist and idealist twist which was consonant with the whole previous character of his Marxism, but remote from Lenin’s. Thus, in the very sentence that Mandel quotes, he could write that: ‘The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.’footnote5 The colossal social, economic and political blockages of world history in the ’thirties are ‘reduced’ to a question of ‘leadership’. Such an idealist formulation is surely incompatible with Lenin’s mode of thought: the subjectivism and monism are evident. A corollary of the notion of leadership here is the fetishization of the programme in Trotsky’s later thought. This becomes the sovereign instance of revolutionary efficacy—fundamentally dissociated from the structure of the party which was the anchor of Lenin’s thought. The programme thus conceived becomes an idealist virtu above politics, where Lenin’s insistence on organization by contrast related it permanently to the social structure and the objective contradictions at work within it. Hence the enormous difference in practical outcomes of the two experiences of ‘party-building’. The one was locked to the deepest internal movement of Russian society of its time. The other never achieved any purchase in the West. At the end of his life, Trotsky remembered the Lenin he had ignored at the beginning of it. He never succeeded in retracing him.