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.

The concrete course of the inner-party struggle is only intelligible in the light of Trotsky’s non-Leninist past. For it was this which both isolated him from the Old Guard, and which led him to numerous tactical miscalculations within the party. The objective and subjective results of his long absence from inner-party life were decisive here. Mandel argues that it is contradictory to state that Trotsky made error after error in his fight against Stalin and that Stalin was already organizationally master of the party by 1923. ‘Surely these two lines of thinking are self-excluding? In the first case, Stalin’s victory was the result of the mistakes of his opponent. In the second case, it was inevitable.’footnote6 In fact, the argument was that organizationally Stalin was master of the party in 1923, but that political unity of the Old Guard against him was the one force which could have defeated him. The organizational master of the party was not already the absolute ruler of the country. Stalin, presenting himself as the representative of collective leadership, could have been successfully challenged by a genuine collective leadership. For an alliance of Bukharin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev in 1923 would doubtless have prevailed.footnote7 This dialectical formulation defines the central issue: why did that political unity never occur? Mandel implicitly admits that this is the correct question to ask, but he himself poses it in a despairing and agnostic manner: ‘The tragedy was that the other leaders of the Bolshevik Party failed to see in time the danger of bureaucracy, and of Stalin mounting to absolute power as the representative of the Soviet bureaucracy. All of them ended by seeing the danger at some time or other, but not at the same time, and not early enough. This is the basic explanation for the apparent ease with which Stalin conquered power.’footnote8 It is this formulation which provides no explanation whatever for the fact which it concedes. Accident or aberration are the only causal factors possible, once it is merely a question of the other Bolshevik leaders ‘not seeing in time’ the danger of Stalin’s ascent to power. By contrast, my own account renders the division of the Old Guard immediately explicable. Trotsky was viewed, not as an ally, but as the main threat by the other Bolshevik leaders, because of his non-Leninist past, because of his military supremacy, because of his authoritarian role during War Communism and because of his commandism in the trade-union debates. Bonapartism was not, as Mandel implies, a Marxist category rediscovered by Trotsky during the ’thirties:footnote9 it was the very danger which Bukharin, Zinoviev and the others saw in Trotsky. At the same time, the very lack of party experience which provoked these suspicions of Trotsky was what prevented him from understanding and overcoming them. He was by and large lost in factional combat, which he always tended to interpret as the ideological transposition of sociological conflicts in society as a whole. Hence he saw Zinoviev and then Bukharin as his main enemy, because they were the ‘ideologues’ of the dominant coalition at different times: a symmetrical error. Trotsky became the leader of an opposition who was himself unaware for a long time that his main opponent was Stalin. The result was that he actually tended to unite the party against himself. The fear of a paper tiger made the party functionaries breed a real tiger; they learnt this a decade later. In the ’twenties, Trotsky as a negative centre accelerated the authoritarian and bureaucratic tendencies in the party. The ‘primitive accumulation’ of Stalin’s power was born from the self-defence of the Old Guard against Trotsky. For Trotsky, the Old Guard was timorously yielding to the social pressure of retrograde Russia. For the functionaries of the party, Trotsky was a dangerous adventurist. Hence Trotsky’s drive to divide the party on lines of pure ‘principles’ ironically created an ‘unprincipled’ alliance against him. Stalin won allegiance for his realism, because the party machinery was very conscious of its isolation from the masses. Stalin was neither a rightist nor a leftist, and the men of the apparatus instinctively felt that he was not a centrist either. For them, he represented an elementary, single-minded idea which had a tremendous appeal: power must be kept. Stalin’s relative necessity was the vis inertiae of the situation. It was the path of least resistance for keeping power and developing in a non-capitalist fashion. Stalin thus became identified with the substance of power, even for his opponents. Bukharin said to Kamenev in 1928: ‘Is not our situation hopeless? If the country perishes, we perish with it (i.e. the party). If the country manages to recover, and Stalin changes course in time, we still perish.’footnote10 Trotsky never understood this complex. The result was a sequence of political blunders—documented in my essay—which ensured the victory of Stalin.

The critical importance of the problem of the Old Guard was a product of the socio-political context of Russia at the time. For the political institution of the party existed in a virtual social vacuum after the Civil War. This is what accounts for the decisive character of Trotsky’s mistakes within the party, which were the natural expression of his general underestimation of the autonomy of political institutions. Sociologism is always a theoretical error: but it was especially disastrous in the Russia of the ’twenties. For the dialectic of mass social forces had temporarily been crippled in the Civil War. The disintegration of the working-class virtually excluded it as a deliberate actor from the political process. After Kronstadt, nobody dared to think of an appeal to the masses (such as Mao was to make in China during the ’sixties, in a very different historical situation). Thus the fate of socialism was suddenly thrown on to the summit of the revolution, while its base was eroded. Trotsky’s basic misunderstanding of this situation may be seen in Mandel’s contradictory account of his general perspective during the ’twenties. On the one hand, Mandel says that Trotsky’s political programme was ‘unrealistic’ because ‘the subjective (his italics) conditions for its implementation did not exist. The Soviet proletariat was passive and atomized. It viewed the programme of the Left Opposition with sympathy but, at a time of exhaustion, without the necessary militancy to fight for it. Contrary to what Krassó seems to think, Trotsky at no time had the slightest illusion about this.’footnote11 But the next moment, Mandel says the opposite. Trotsky’s struggle was not just a matter of honour to ‘save the programme’, in lucid awareness of inevitable defeat. For ‘the Soviet working-class was passive—but its passiveness was not predetermined mechanically for a long period. Any upsurge of the international revolution, any shift in the inner-Soviet relationship of social forces, could have brought about an awakening. The immediate instrument for these shifts could only be the Comintern and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.’footnote12 These two claims are irreconcilable. They merely indicate the difficulty for any ex post facto justification of Trotsky’s course. The truth is that Trotsky did not believe that his programme was ‘unrealistic’. His dispute with Rakovsky in 1928 makes this absolutely clear, for Rakovsky did believe exactly this. His Letter to Valentinov stands out as perhaps the most clairvoyant social analysis of the decade: Trotsky emphatically rejected it. The reason he did so is, of course, that he believed in the immediate fighting potential of the Soviet proletariat; this was, indeed, the assumption of his whole conduct of the inner-party struggle. What he critically underestimated was the degree of disintegration of the working-class after the Civil War. Lenin, once again, was by contrast acutely aware of this. His formulation of the problem was characteristically radical: ‘Where is your large-scale industry? What sort of a proletariat is this? Where is your industry? Why is it idle?’ he asked in 1921. This was the nub of the problem: not the ‘passivity’ of the proletariat (Mandel’s phrase)—a subjective, conjunctural state, but its disintegration and dispersal—an objective, structural condition. Its numbers were reduced by two-thirds, and its composition was transformed, with its best militants dead or transferred to party functions. This is the sociological background of the inner-party struggle, and one which Lenin at the start of the decade and Rakovsky at the end of it perceived. Trotsky, believing in the immediate predominance of social forces, did not.