For many years, Trotsky was an impossible subject for a Marxist. The struggle in the Bolshevik Party in the twenties produced such a violent polarization of his image within the international working-class movement that all rational discussion of his person and works ceased. The anathema pronounced by Stalin made his name synonymous with treason for millions of militants all over the world. On the other side of the divide, a dedicated and segregated minority sanctified his memory, and believed his thought to be the ‘Leninism of our time’. Even today, 30 years after his death and a decade after the death of Stalin, there is still a taboo on normal discussion of Trotsky within the Communist movement. Magical attitudes towards his figure continue—a striking anachronism in the world of today. The one exception to this rule is, of course, Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume biography—itself only a part of a larger oeuvre. But here, paradoxically, the greatness of Deutscher’s achievement has seemingly overpowered any other potential contributors to a debate, within Marxism, on Trotsky’s true historical role. It is surely significant that there has never been any Marxist appraisal of Deutscher’s work, of a quality that matched its stature. It has been so much in advance of contemporary attitudes that it has not yet been properly assimilated, and hence has never been contested. Its implications, however, will only be assimilated by a continuous discussion of different areas within Soviet history—even where divergent views are developed. It would be an error not to broach specific problems for fear of failing to come to grips with the whole revolutionary epic, or its historian.

The aim of this essay is to approach such a problem—how should we judge Trotsky as a Marxist? This means comparing him with Lenin (rather than with Stalin) and trying to see what is the specific unity of his theoretical writings and his practice as a politician. For this purpose, Trotsky’s life falls into four distinct phases: 1879–1917, 1917–21, 1921–29, and 1929–40. It will be the thesis of this essay that all four periods are best understood in the framework of a single problem: Trotsky’s relation to the Party as the revolutionary organization of the proletariat, and its latent theoretical foundations. This focus, it will be argued, illuminates all the basic characteristics (vices and virtues) of Trotsky’s thought as a Marxist, and explains the vicissitudes of his political career.

Before the October Revolution, Trotsky was never a disciplined member of any faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Party, Bolshevik or Menshevik. This record may be explained partly by political disagreements at different conjunctures with the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. But it also undoubtedly reflected a deeper theoretical option, which governed his actions in this period. One of his first recorded writings, Deutscher tells us, was an essay on party organization produced in Siberia. In this, Trotsky argued for a ruthless disciplinary control over the revolutionary movement by a strong Central Committee. ‘The Central Committee will cut off its relations with (any undisciplined organization) and it will thereby cut off that organization from the entire world revolution’, he wrote.footnote1 It was consistent with this view that Trotsky, when he left Russia in 1902, should have initially advocated an iron disciplinary system in the dispute between Iskra and the Economists at the Third Congress of the rsdp in Brussels in July 1903. The party’s statutes, he argued, should express ‘the leadership’s organized distrust’ of the members, a distrust exercised by vigilant, vertical control over the party.

This formulation is visibly different in spirit from anything that is to be found in What is to be Done? Trotsky In this phase, just emerged from exile and new to the national revolutionary movement, was known as ‘Lenin’s cudgel’, but if we compare the writings of the two at this period, it is clear—as we shall see—that Trotsky’s ‘protoBolshevik’ phase merely reproduced the external and formal aspects of Lenin’s theory of party organization, without its sociological content— and thus necessarily caricatured it as a militarized hierarchy of command, a conception completely foreign to Lenin. Since it was not founded on any organic theory of the revolutionary party, there is nothing surprising about the fact that Trotsky suddenly switched to the opposite extreme at the same Congress, eventually denouncing Lenin as the ‘party’s disorganizer’ and the architect of a plan to turn the rsdp into a band of conspirators rather than of the Russian working-class. ‘Lenin’s cudgel’ thus became a founder-member of the Mensheviks in late 1903. In April 1904, Trotsky published in Geneva Our Political Tasks, an essay dedicated to the Menshevik Axelrod. In this, he frontally rejected Lenin’s whole theory of the revolutionary party, explicitly denying Lenin’s fundamental thesis that socialism as a theory had to be brought to the working-class from the outside, through a party which included the revolutionary intelligentsia. Trotsky attacked this theory as ‘substitutionism’ and he denounced it in lurid fashion: ‘Lenin’s methods lead to this: the party organization at first substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organization; and finally a single ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.’ He went to denounce Lenin for ‘malicious and morally repulsive suspiciousness’.footnote2

His own model of the Social-Democratic Patty was borrowed from the German Party and implied a party coextensive with the workingclass. The obvious criticism of such a formulation, in a Marxist perspective, is that the true problems of revolutionary theory, and the relations between party and class, cannot be approached scientifically with the concept of ‘substitution’ and its implied opposite ‘identity’. Party and class pertain to different levels of the social structure, and the relationship between them is always one of articulation. No exchange (‘substitution’) is possible between them, just as no identity between them is possible—for they are necessarily different instances of a stratified social ensemble, not comparable or equivalent expressions of a given level of it. The speculative concepts of ‘substitution’ or ‘identity’ ab initio preclude any accurate understanding of the specific nature of the practice of the revolutionary party on (and in) the working-class, as Lenin theorized it. They amount to a radical failure to see the inevitably autonomous role of political institutions in general, and the revolutionary party in particular—autonomous in relation to mass forces within a social formation determined in the last instance, of course, by the economy.

The failure to grasp the specificity of political organizations and the role of the revolutionary party—in other words the lack of a theory of the party—explains the sudden and arbitrary changes in Trotsky’s attitudes towards party organization in these years. They merely had a psychological meaning—expressions of an ambivalence between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘libertarian’ attitudes (later reproduced in the sudden changes from his attitudes to War Communism to his role in combating ‘bureaucracy’) whose abstract opposition itself indicated a pre-Marxist problem. They had no theoretical status proper—beyond this indication of an absence, a blank zone in Trotsky’s thought.

This absence, however, was linked to a peculiarly intense intuition of mass social forces as such. In late 1904, Trotsky seceded from the Menshevik faction and went into intellectual partnership with Parvus, a Russian émigré in the German sdp. The extreme instability of his links to any organizational grouping was thus rapidly confirmed. It was this unanchored position, however, which paradoxically made possible his meteoric ascent in the 1905 Revolution—a spontaneous eruption over which no revolutionary organization had time to gain an effective control, before it dissipated its momentum and was defeated. Both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were taken by surprise by the Revolution, and their leaders only arrived in Russia with some delay. Trotsky, who was in St. Petersburg from the beginning, adapted much more quickly to the mass upsurge of October, unstructured as it was by any guiding political party. He soon won leadership of the St. Petersburg Soviet. Deutscher correctly observes that precisely in this success, ‘he embodied the immaturity of the movement’. This immaturity, of course, produced the rapid and decisive defeat of the revolution five months later—the funeral of spontaneity in the history of the Russian workingclass movement.