Nicolas Krassó’s critique of Trotsky’s political thought and activities, which appeared in issue No. 44 of the New Left Review, provides a welcome occasion to unravel some of the misconceptions and prejudices about the historical role of the founder of the Red Army, which still haunt a large part of the ‘non-engaged left intelligentsia. The roots of these misconceptions are easily discovered. The public admission and denunciation of some of Stalin’s worst crimes by the present Soviet leaders is by no means accompanied by an adoption of the policies for which Trotsky fought during the last 15 years of his life. Neither in the internal organization of the ‘socialist’ countries, nor in their international policy (with the single exception of Cuba), have their leaders gone back to the principles of Soviet democracy and revolutionary internationalism which Trotsky defended. But historically, the very fact that Stalin has been thrown down from his pedestal, and that many accusations launched against him by Trotsky are now accepted as correct, represents a tremendous historical vindication of the man whom Stalin’s agent murdered on August 20 th, 1940 in Coyoacan.

Anyone who remains unengaged in the struggle to bring about the final triumph of Trotsky’s programme—his complete political vindication—will therefore tend to rationalize his abstention by looking for faults, mistakes and weaknesses in that programme. By doing so, he cannot repeat the gross distortions and falsifications of Stalinist henchmen of the ’thirties, the ’forties and the early ’fifties: that Trotsky was a ‘counter-revolutionary’ and an ‘agent of imperialism’; that he wanted to, or objectively tended to, restore capitalism in the ussr. He has thus to fall back on the arguments which the more sophisticated and cleverer opponents of Trotsky advanced against him during the ’twenties: that he was essentially a ‘non-Bolshevik’, a ‘left social-democrat’, who had not understood the peculiarities of Russia, the finesse of Lenin’s theory of organization, or the complex dialectics of successful proletarian class struggle, in the West and the East. This is exactly what Krassó is doing today.

Krassó’s central thesis is quite simple: Trotsky’s original sin is lack of understanding of the rôle of the revolutionary party, his belief that social forces can directly and immediately mould history, that they are, as it were, ‘transportable’ into political organizations. This prevented him from ever understanding Lenin’s theory of organization, and led to crass ‘sociologism’ and voluntarism. From his rejection of Bolshevism in 1904, to his rôle in the October revolution and in building up the Red Army, his defeat in the inner-party struggle of 1923–27, his style as a historian and his ‘futile attempt’ to build a Fourth International, sociologism and voluntarism constitute a single nexus. Trotsky’s Marxism thus ‘forms a consistent and characteristic unity, from his early youth to his old age’, Krassó claims.

Nobody will dispute that Trotsky rejected the essence of Lenin’s theory of organization before 1917.footnote1 We shall not dispute either that the party, the ideology and the psychology of social classes can gain a certain degree of autonomy in the historical process, or, to quote Krassó, that Marxism (not only Lenin’s Marxism but any adequate interpretation of Marx’s doctrine) ‘is defined by the notion of a complex totality, in which all the levels—economic, social, political and ideological—are always operational, and there is a permutation of the main locus of contradictions between them’. But this is a very meagre basis to substantiate Krassó’s thesis. When we try to analyse Trotsky’s real thinking and its development through nearly 40 years, we encounter at every step evidence of the incompleteness and the inadequacy of Krassó’s picture.

In the first place it is incorrect to say that, when rejecting Lenin’s theory of organization, Trotsky borrowed his own model of a social-democratic party from the German spd, as a ‘party coexistensive with the working class’ (p. 66). Historically, it would be much more correct to argue along opposite lines, i.e. to show that Lenin’s theory of organization was to a large extent borrowed from the theoreticians of German and Austrian Social-Democracy, Kautsky and Adler.footnote2 Trotsky’s mistaken opposition to Lenin’s theory, at least in its rational kernel, was based upon his distrust of the Western social-democratic apparatus as an essentially conservative one. Krassó himself admits a few pages later that Trotsky already in 1905 was more critical of Western social-democracy than Lenin (p. 68). How could he then mould his party model on that social-democracy?footnote3

In the second place, it is completely untrue to insinuate that Trotsky continued to misunderstand or to reject Lenin’s theory of organization after he had recognized that Lenin had been right on that issue, in 1917. There is no proof for this assumption. Lenin himself declared emphatically that, after Trotsky had understood that unity with the Mensheviks was impossible,footnote4 ‘there was no better Bolshevik than Trotsky’.footnote5 All Trotsky’s writings after 1917 insist on the key rôle of the revolutionary party in our age. At each turning point of his career, in 1923 with Lessons of October and The New Course, in 1926 with the Platform of the Left Opposition, in his critique of the Comintern’s disastrous policies in China, Germany, Spain and France, in the ‘thirties in his History of the Russian Revolution and in his political testaments, the Transitional Programme of the 4th International and the so-called Emergency Conference Manifesto, he tirelessly stressed that the problem of building revolutionary parties is the key problem of this epoch: ‘The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.’footnote6 A queer way, indeed, to ‘forget’ the rôle of the vanguard and to believe that social forces can directly and immediately mould history. . . .

It is true that for Trotsky, a revolutionary vanguard was not just a cleverly built and well-oiled political machine. Such an idea, born from American bourgeois politics which, as is well known, are often undistinguishable from gangsterism, was completely alien to Lenin, Bolshevism or, for that matter, the entire international labour movement, until Stalin introduced it into the practice of the Comintern. For Trotsky, as for Lenin and any Marxist tendency, a revolutionary vanguard party should be judged objectively, in the first place in the light of its avowed programme and its actual policy. If and when the best-functioning and strongest party starts to act against the interests of the revolution and the working class, a struggle has to be led to put it right. If and when its actions become consistently and for an entire epoch contrary to the interests of the proletariat, it cannot be considered a revolutionary vanguard party any more—and then the task of building a new one immediately arises.footnote7