Why Trotsky’s politics achieved nothing solid

Trotsky, the Performing Bolshevik

Why he failed as a long-term leader. How he left behind a poisoned legacy

by Gwydion M. Williams

While it’s a bit much to say that the last quarter of the 20th century history was distorted by one man’s vanity, Trotskyism definitely did play a large and negative role in the 1970s. Back then, the West’s ruling class was confused and scared and open to significant change. There was a serious chance of a new wave of reforms within the existing system, as radical as happened after 1945. We might have had Workers Control and wider social planning in the form of a fairly egalitarian Incomes Policy. Options existed at that time that would have been vastly better for the left than what actually happened.

Trotskyism with its massive misunderstandings served as a blocker of serious radicalism. They helped get feasible reforms rejected in favour of foolish dreams of revolution. And they did a great deal to discredit the memory of Britain’s massive advances in the post-1945 era, sincerely wishing for something more radical but laying socialist politics wide open to the aggression of the New Right.

The Trotskyist argument and complaint is that they had wonderful ideas but that people failed to follow them. But that’s politics. Most people who think that they have wonderful ideas turn out to be wrong: some turn out to be right but ahead of their time. But somebody with apparently wonderful ideas should also have the judgement to decide whether or not a hard uncompromising line is likely to pay off. They should consider the possibility that it would be wise to settle for something rather less wonderful, something feasible in immediate real-world politics.

Trotskyism emerged as a distinct movement in the 1920s, claiming that the grand legacy of the October Revolution had been betrayed by the existing Bolshevik leadership. Mainstream Leninism went on to score many successes for left-wing causes before falling apart in the 1980s – apart from a few places like Nepal, where it is still going strong. Meantime Trotskyism has achieved nothing beyond getting in the way of other more serious forms of politics.

Radical movements usually begin with fringe intellectuals, propagate mostly among university students and sometimes grow into substantial political forces that can incorporate all sorts of wildly different people. Trotskyist movements in a huge variety of different countries have an unhappy habit of getting bogged down in the second stage, propagating mostly among university students and a few working-class militants. It produces people who preach unlimited liberty but practice small-scale authoritarianism – whereas mainstream Leninists have generally been willing to accept popular authoritarianism outside of their control as a necessary part of progressive politics.

Socialist organisations mostly begin on the basis of an ideology, with no regard for immediate practicality or popular support. Some stay there. All branches of Trotskyism have stayed there, apart from some medium-sized movements in Sri Lanka that have achieved nothing much in that country’s unhappy politics.

A purer variety of Trotskyists also briefly had an armed insurgency in Argentina, another disaster. The theory was that once the state was provoked to massive repression, people would be so repelled that they would turn to the revolutionary cause. The reality was that the bulk of the population accepted massive state repression when it seemed justified by the existence of armed rebels determined to reshape the society according to a minority viewpoint.

[Not entirely right: the Argentine Marxists were a mix of beliefs.]

The partly Trotskyist POUM in Spain fit this pattern: they weakened the Republic’s struggle for survival in the 1930s Civil War with their demands for a hard-line radical policy. This hard-line radical policy would probably have failed even if all committed socialists had been for it. The left in Spain was split between non-socialists Radicals, Socialists who were sometimes pro-Moscow, Anarchists who were suspicious of everyone and a small Communist Party that grew rapidly during the war. The Communist line was for a United Front that kept everyone together but gave the Communists the chance to grow further, a tactic that worked elsewhere. POUM opposed this in favour of a hard-line policy that obviously wasn’t going to be implemented, whether or not it was a good idea.

So where did it all go wrong?

In 1917, Trotsky was very much a ‘general without an army’. Lenin chose to bring him into the Bolshevik leadership because he had skills that Lenin needed. He was a brilliant orator at a time when oratory counted for a great deal. Also an impressive journalist, and he turned out to be a good organiser when operating within an existing political structure, Lenin’s structure.

It gets overlooked how unexpected and remarkable it was that dozens of very different individuals have been able to make the transition from Marxist ideologues to major politicians. From little-known leaders engaged in small-scale organisation on the fringes of society to military, political and economic organisation on a grand scale. Able to do this with great success, when it normally needs long experience and a kind of apprenticeship to achieve even moderate competence. The fact that it happens is well-known, but the sheer oddity gets ignored.

The only way to make sense of this is to accept that Marxist theory and Leninist politics have huge advantages over conventional politics and political theory. Or perhaps that they did in the 1920s and 1930s, losing this advantage later on. I’ve detailed elsewhere how a lot of Leninist ideas have seeped into mainstream politics and come to be viewed as ‘common sense’.

[Reinventing Normality in the 20th century ]

Libertarian ideology has proved to be the direct opposite of Leninism, a massive subtractor of value. Libertarians could of course say that their creed has never been properly practiced, but that is also true of thousands of other creeds. The New Right is Libertarianism adapted for functional power politics, and it has done much worse than the Old Right or Old Left.

Politics dominated by New Right lost the USA the extremely strong position they had in 1991. A minority among them wanted a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the new Russia, a repeat of the policies that won over West Germany, Italy and Japan after World War Two. But for the ideologues, relying on their own supermundane understanding of the forces behind history, the Marshall Plan was an abomination that succeeded quite by chance, or possibly inhibited a normal recovery that should be credited to capitalism. (A view they also take of Roosevelt’s New Deal – they are always heroes of history as it did not happen.)

Libertarianism can draw on the existing skills of some of the world’s best business people and the impressive technology and traditions of the US armed forces. The creed has had vast numbers of rich backers and had enjoyed media favouritism. Yet it has made a complete dogs dinner of trying to run the world after the Soviet collapse. I think that Newt Gingrich was the only one among them who tried to make the transition from ideologue to practical politician, and he hasn’t so far made a success of it. I find it hilarious that he is currently (December 2011) a serious candidate for President of the USA.

Curiously, the failure of the USA to create a New World Order has not been blamed on their current ideology even by most of their critics. In part because most left-wing thinking has not moved on from the 1970s and has not admitted that mainstream leftism blundered in the 1970s. Trotskyism has been part of the hindrance, unable to suggest realistic politics that go against conventional wisdom.

(Any fool can challenge conventional wisdom. The trick is to do so correctly. Or at least with an alternative system that can match the successes of conventional wisdom.)

Both Liberalism and Libertarianism started out in highly organised societies, places where several centuries of authoritarian monarchy had stamped a definite order on what were originally loosely connected populations with a diverse collection of local outlooks. Places where the rather unnatural idea of Universal Citizenship and the unimportance of ancestry had come to seem natural. Places where the idea of social interactions via uncaring market forces and impersonal bureaucracies were viewed as quite as natural as the weather or the intermittent disorders of the human gut. Once the job had been done and a rather variant of human society had come to seem normal to those born into it, it was possible to relax discipline and expect the population to cohere on a mostly voluntary basis.

(You might of course think that the world was a better place when it consisted of loosely connected populations with a diverse collection of local outlooks. But unless you also think it should have stayed pre-industrial, you can’t easily avoid the conclusion that coherent societies had to be created large enough to generate a new way of life. And you must also note that loosely connected populations are usually unable to win the inevitable military conflicts with rival systems.)

Highly organised societies may also decide to improve themselves, and may wish to discard the fragments of irrational tradition that the ruling class retained for their own benefit after they trashed it for everyone else. This does seem to be the long-term trend of history, but also a much harder transition that was once hoped. That’s been the real history of the 20th century – not an ‘Age of Extremes’ but an Age of Painful Liberation, with liberation still incomplete and likely to go on being painful to achieve.

Curiously, radical social and economic developments have worked best when elements of tradition have been retained in the service of the new order. In most of Western Europe, there was an hereditary monarch to give stability to the system and prevented political rivalries from ripping the state apart. France was the grand exception, and the state was indeed ripped apart several times. After executing their monarch, the French ran through several versions of Republican government, and then moved with overwhelming popular support to Napoleon’s Empire. When Napoleon fell, they ran through a restored monarchy, an alternative liberal monarchy, another republic, a new Empire under Napoleon’s nephew and finally a Third Republic that was set up after a vicious civil war and the crushing of the Paris Commune. Politics remained bitter and ineffective as France’s relative position in the world declined, until De Gaulle with his quasi-dictatorial rule established a Fifth Republic that has managed fairly well so far. (It still has a few years to go before it can be called the longest-lasting system since the original revolution.)

That was Western Europe, along with its colonies. Colonies usually carry on with much the same politics as the home society. Spain and Portugal were fractious and dominated by a politically-minded military: Latin America has been the same. British colonies inherited the 1688 settlement in which the gentry decided it was best to accept the results of elections and be a loyal opposition when not in power. (Not democratic until the 1880s or later: voting was originally confined to a rich male minority and dominated by aristocratic influence.)

The USA likes to think of itself as an Immaculate Conception on clean new lands, or rather lands from which the aboriginal inhabitants had been conveniently cleared. But the US Constitution was based on 13 self-governing states. It defined its federal government as an approximate copy of Britain, with a President in place of the King, a Vice-President in place of Heir Apparent and a Senate in place of the House of Lords. It still wasn’t that stable, enduring astonishing losses and showing amazing heroism on both sides in its 1860s war over the extension westwards of slavery and the right of states to secede.

Marx and his followers assumed that the rest of the world would follow broadly the European schema, but this turned out to be wrong. Up to 1914, there was general confidence in progress and also some belief that a World State was going to be the end result. The war that began in 1914 was expected to end quickly, but dragged on for several terrible years and did the victors almost as much damage as the defeated. And it was out of this massive failure of European civilisation that a host of new political ideas emerged. The two that mattered in terms of power-politics turned out to be Fascism and Leninism.

Lenin invented the basics, so that during the 20th century ‘Leninism’ and ‘Marxism’ became virtually the same thing, with non-Leninist Marxism becoming insignificant. The world in 1919 was a very different place from what it had been in 1914. Only Lenin’s party was at home in the new environment, which had been caused by rival empires deciding to carry through their rivalries to the bitter end.

In terms of building on Lenin’s work, I’d rate the highest achievers as Mao, Stalin, Deng Xiaoping, Trotsky and Ho Chi Minh, in that order. I rate Mao above Stalin because his work has continued to flourish while Stalin’s fell apart. Deng was at all times a Leninist, and even identified himself as a Maoist in the crisis of 1989, if the Tiananmen Papers are genuine. Some parts of Deng’s reforms were window dressing: the ‘Township and Village Enterprises’ that many Western observers have praised and admired are pretty much the same thing as Mao’s Communes, just with elements of individual enterprise and a name that reassures Western customers. I’ve been arguing that China under Deng switched to Moderate Socialism rather than Capitalism since the mid-1990s, about a decade ahead of a similar conclusion being reached by a minority of the West’s China experts.

To go back to the crisis of the First World War, Trotsky in 1917 was one of a couple of dozen prominent individuals in Russia’s Far Left. Outside Russia he was barely known: his reputation was made by his large visible role in Russia’s successful revolution. But as I’ll show, Trotsky during his days of power was something different from what he later claimed. He was deeply involved in the original creation of the system whose bad points he later blamed on Stalin.

If one were to use the standard modern terminology, one would have to speak of Trotsky being Stalinist in the era 1917-23.

Actually there is no Stalinism, just mainstream Leninism and various offshoots. None of the offshoots were politically significant, apart from Mao’s ‘Continuity Leninism’, which rejected Khrushchev’s pretence that there was a significant difference between Lenin and Stalin.

Stalin was important in 1917, but little noticed by outsiders. For a time he was the most senior Bolshevik inside of Russia, the others being still in exile. He operated on the basis of existing Bolshevik policy, assuming that Russia was going through a Bourgeois-Democratic revolution and that the Bolshevik task was to defend working-class interests with a view to a workers revolution many years in the future. He was willing to accept a moderately radical government as legitimate, even though this ‘moderation’ included a determination to carry on with the appalling slaughter of World War One. Only when Lenin arrived were Stalin and other Bolsheviks convinced that something more radical was needed. This happened to coincide with Trotsky’s long-held notion of Permanent Revolution, so Lenin coopted Trotsky onto the top leadership of a party that he very much dominated.

Trotsky had no idea about how to translate his ideas into coherent power-politics. Mostly he made speeches or wrote articles and then hoped that people would do what he said. This worked when the whole society was shaken up by revolution and rapid change: not at other times. At least it worked to the extent it made Trotsky a major political figure, of the sort that often flourish in revolutionary times and mostly leave nothing solid behind them. Trotsky in 1917 allowed himself to be plugged into Lenin’s highly disciplined and effective party, expecting that world revolution would follow shortly. When it didn’t, and when his own position became shaky after Lenin’s death, Trotsky reverted to his old habit of blaming others. His resumed his foolish habit of talking as if he possessed some brilliant answer which he was being maliciously prevented from implementing by lesser men jealous of his brilliance.

I don’t doubt that Trotsky aroused jealousy. But the real problem was that he didn’t actually possess some brilliant answer, or even a workable answer.

Despite failing to keep control of the revolution he had helped start, and despite intermittently denouncing it for turning into something evil, Trotsky never admitted fault and never ceased to denounce the Moderate Socialists as traitors. The Moderate Socialists had decided that compromising with existing authorities was the lesser evil than creating a radical authoritarian system. They were probably wrong in the 1920s and 1930s, but only if the massive collapse of the Great Slump could be anticipated. They achieved a great deal in the 1940s to 1970s, though most of them failed to realise that it was the Far Left challenge that made the rich conciliatory.

If you’re not planning on overthrowing the system, you are in practice accepting the existing state structure. Relying on the army and police to do any ‘dirty work’ that exercising power may involve. Moderate Socialists in office usually rely on others to do their nastiness for them.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Moderate Socialist policies had great success, though it helped greatly because the rich and privileged were scared of both the Communist challenge and a revival of Fascism. Still, it would have been productive in the 1960s and 1970s to acknowledge this success and see how much further Reformism could go. Instead radical thinking was dominated by Trotskyism and by the semi-Trotskyist outlook adopted by Khrushchev. From the 1980s, socialist advance turned into a retreat and sometimes a route.

Trotsky was an excellent Leninist organiser from 1917 to some time in 1923, arguably till the time he realised he wasn’t going to be Lenin’s successor, at least not in the short term. Between 1903 and 1917 he had been wandering ineffectively in the dead ground between Menshevism and Bolshevism, between Moderate Socialists who sought improvements within the existing society and Revolutionary Socialists who were set on tearing it all down and building again. (Or perhaps failing to build again.)

Trotsky was able to make a rather good description of the difference, as expressed in the split between Lenin and Martov in what was then the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party:

“Later on, through the split at the Second Congress of the party, the Iskra adherents were divided into two groups, the ‘hard’ and the ‘soft.’ These names were much in vogue at first. They indicated that, although no marked divisions really existed, there was a difference in point of view, in resoluteness and readiness to go on to the end.

“One can say of Lenin and Martov that even before the split, even before the congress, Lenin was ‘hard’ and Martov ‘soft.’ And they both knew it. Lenin would glance at Martov, whom he estimated highly, with a critical and somewhat suspicious look, and Martov, feeling his glance, would look down and move his thin shoulders nervously. When they met or conversed afterward, at least when I was present, one missed the friendly inflection and the jests. Lenin would look beyond Martov as he talked, while Martov’s eyes would grow glassy under his drooping and never quite clean pince-nez. And when Lenin spoke to me of Martov, there was a peculiar intonation in his voice: ‘Who said that? Julius?’ – and the name Julius was pronounced in a special way, with a slight emphasis, as if to give warning: ‘A good man, no question about it, even a remarkable one, but much too soft.’ [A]

“How did I come to be with the ‘softs’ at the congress? Of the Iskra editors, my closest connections were with Martov, Zasulitch and Axelrod. Their influence over me was unquestionable. Before the congress there were various shades of opinion on the editorial board, but no sharp differences. I stood farthest from Plekhanov, who, after the first really trivial encounters, had taken an intense dislike to me. Lenin’s attitude toward me was unexceptionally kind. But now it was he who, in my eyes, was attacking the editorial board, a body which was, in my opinion, a single unit, and which bore the exciting name of Iskra. The idea of a split within the board seemed nothing short of sacrilegious to me.

“Revolutionary centralism is a harsh, imperative and exacting principle. It often takes the guise of absolute ruthlessness in its relation to individual members, to whole groups of former associates. It is not without significance that the words ‘irreconcilable’ and ‘relentless’ are among Lenin’s favorites. It is only the most impassioned, revolutionary striving for a definite end – a striving that is utterly free from any-thing base or personal – that can justify such a personal ruthlessness. In 1903, the whole point at issue was nothing more than Lenin’s desire to get Axelrod and Zasulitch off the editorial board. My attitude toward them was full of respect, and there was an element of personal affection as well. Lenin also thought highly of them for what they had done in the past. But he believed that they were becoming an impediment for the future. This led him to conclude that they must be removed from their position of leadership. I could not agree. My whole being seemed to protest against this merciless cutting off of the older ones when they were at last on the threshold of an organized party. It was my indignation at his attitude that really led to my parting with him at the second congress. His behavior seemed unpardonable to me, both horrible and outrageous. And yet, politically it was right and necessary, from the point of view of organization. The break with the older ones, who remained in the preparatory stages, was in evitable in any case. Lenin understood this before any one else did. He made an attempt to keep Plekhanov by separating him from Zasulitch and Axelrod. But this, too, was quite futile, as subsequent events soon proved.

“My break with Lenin occurred on what might be considered ‘moral’ or even personal grounds. But this was merely on the surface. At bottom, the separation was of a political nature and merely expressed itself in the realm of organization methods. I thought of myself as a centralist. But there is no doubt that at that time I did not fully realize what an intense and imperious centralism the revolutionary party would need to lead millions of people in a war against the old order.” [B]

But did he properly realise it later? During the excitement of revolution, he was willing to smash the old order and set up a radical dictatorship, without considering what this meant. Martov remained consistently opposed. Others who had been against Lenin decided that there was no other option and joined the new Communist Party. Trotsky helped build the new authoritarian order, and showed no concern about its harshness for as long as he was effectively Lenin’s deputy. When revolution led on to civil war, he was determined it would be fought properly: that is to say, with great ruthlessness.

“Now it is time to speak of ‘The train of the Predrevoyensoviet.’ [The train of the Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council. – Trans.] During the most strenuous years of the revolution, my own personal life was bound up inseparably with the life of that train. The train, on the other hand, was inseparably bound up with the life of the Red Army. The train linked the front with the base, solved urgent problems on the spot, educated, appealed, supplied, rewarded, and punished.

“An army cannot be built without reprisals. Masses of men cannot be led to death unless the army command has the death-penalty in its arsenal. So long as those malicious tailless apes that are so proud of their technical achievements – the animals that we call men – will build armies and wage wars, the command will always be obliged to place the soldiers between the possible death in the front and the inevitable one in the rear. And yet armies are not built on fear. The Czar’s army fell to pieces not because of any lack of reprisals. In his attempt to save it by restoring the death-penalty, Kerensky only finished it. Upon the ashes of the great war, the Bolsheviks created a new army. These facts demand no explanation for any one who has even the slightest knowledge of the language of history. The strongest cement in the new army was the ideas of the October revolution, and the train supplied the front with this cement.” [C]

Politics helped, but a lot of people were shot for various sorts of disobedience. And Trotsky took the lead in restoring officers from the old army with something like their old powers, albeit watched over by Commissars. That was probably the only way to win that war – and the alternative would have been victory for a White-Russian movement that strongly resembled what later developed as Fascism. If there was an error it happened earlier: banning all rival left-wing parties and making a costly agreement with Germany with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, a few months before Germany faced total defeat and was tricked into signing an armistice that was supposed to be based on President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Peace was made between Soviet Russia and Germany in March 1918: Germany itself made a virtual surrender in the form of an armistice in November 1918, after coming close to victory in the West using troops freed from fighting Russia.

(As Brendan Clifford has argued, making a bad peace with a power on the verge of defeat was a missed opportunity and both Lenin and Trotsky were guilty of it. Bukharin had a sensible alternative: resume the war on the basis of socialism. This would also have avoided alienating left-wing allies and might have produced a very different Soviet Union, perhaps less harsh and perhaps including great chunks of Middle-Europe or even parts of Germany. Or it could have led to the extinction of Soviet power, with unpredictable results, which was Lenin’s fear. It was a ‘road not taken’ and Trotsky was one of those who chose not to take it.)

Having established a dictatorship so as to enforce a peace that gave away huge territories that had been part of the Tsarist Empire, the Bolsheviks took steps to take them back as soon as the opportunity arose. This included the Ukraine, briefly nationalist and independent under German protection. Also Georgia, briefly a socialist state run by Mensheviks but then conquered after having signed a peace treaty with the new Soviet Union. And there was a serious attempt to push west, to link up with leftists in Germany by way of Poland, regardless of what most Poles might think of it. Trotsky was very much part of it:

“Of course, I never had an occasion to express my sympathy with the Poland of Pilsudski; that is, a Poland of oppression and repression under a cloak of patriotic phraseology and heroic braggadocio. It would be easy to pick out a number of my statements to the effect that, in the event that war was forced on us by Pilsudski, we would try not to stop half-way. Such statements were the result of the entire setting. But to draw the conclusion from this that we wanted a war with Poland, or were even preparing it, is to lie in the face of facts and common sense…

“The capture of Kiev by the Poles, in itself devoid of any military significance, did us a great service; it awakened the country. Again I had to make the rounds of armies and cities, mobilizing men and resources. We recaptured Kiev. Then our successes began. The Poles were rolled back with a celerity I never anticipated, since I could hardly believe the foolhardiness that actually lay at the bottom of Pilsudski’s campaign. But on our side, too, after our first major successes, the idea of the possibilities that were opened to us became greatly exaggerated. A point of view that the war which began as one of defense should be turned into an offensive and revolutionary war began to grow and acquire strength.

“In principle, of course, I could not possibly have any objection to such a course. The question was simply one of the correlation of forces. The unknown quantity was the attitude of the Polish workers and peasants. Some of our Polish comrades, such as the late J. Marklilevsky, a co-worker of Rosa Luxemburg’s, weighed the situation very soberly. The former’s estimation was an important factor in my desire to get out of the war as quickly as possible. But there were other voices, too. There were high hopes of an uprising of the Polish workers. At any rate, Lenin fixed his mind on carrying the war to an end, up to the entry into Warsaw to help the Polish workers overthrow Pilsudski’s government and seize the power.” [D]

Trotsky insists he correctly saw the dangers of the war, while not objecting to the idea if it could have been carried through. He also blames the consequent defeat on misbehaviour by an army group that included Stalin: that’s one of history’s unresolved issues. Trotsky was certainly happy with the principle that World Communism should expand itself by armed conquest of reluctant neighbours, wherever this should be possible.

People nowadays forget that a World State was at that time a widespread radical objective. Lenin’s Third International was much the most plausible vehicle to establish such a unity. But Leninists found that establishing new politics was a lot harder than had been expected. The idea of a World State of any sort has now receded, and new multi-cultural forms of radicalism have blossomed. Still, Leninism did move mainstream politics a very long way in the directions of the original radical vision of 1917. Some of the problems were with that original vision. But I don’t know of any other meaningful political movement that was closer to the modern mainstream on a broad spectrum of issues. Sexual equality, racial equality, the end of Imperialism, the end of bourgeois values, the weakening of religion and the establishment of considerable sexual freedom, at least for heterosexuals.

Leninism’s strong positive influence, in the end damaged by its determination to conquer and command. Trotsky was part of it and his heirs continued the same attitudes without any realistic politics that might have enforced their aims.

Trotsky was quite content with dictatorship at home, for as long as Lenin was boss and he was deputy. Shooting rival socialists was part of normal politics as it had developed after the Bolsheviks pushed aside rival parties and took total power for themselves:

“In July, Lenin was on his feet again, and although he did not officially return to work until October, he kept his eye on every thing and studied everything. During those months of convalescence, among the things that engaged his attention was the trial of the Socialist- Revolutionists. The Socialist-Revolutionists had killed Volodarsky and Uritzky, had wounded Lenin seriously, and had made two attempts to blow up my train. We could not treat all this lightly. Although we did not regard it from the idealistic point of view of our enemies, we appreciated ‘the role of the individual in history.’ We could not close our eyes to the danger that threatened the revolution if we were to allow our enemies to shoot down, one by one, the whole leading group of our party.

“Our humanitarian friends of the neither-hot-nor-cold species have explained to us more than once that they could see the necessity of reprisals in general, but that to shoot a captured enemy means to overstep the limits of necessary self-defense. They demanded that we show ‘magnanimity.’ Clara Zetkin and other European communists who still dared at that time to say what they thought, in opposition to Lenin and me, insisted that we spare the lives of the men on trial. They suggested that we limit their punishment to confinement in prison. This seemed the simplest solution. But the question of reprisals on individuals in times of revolution assumes a quite specific character from which humanitarian generalities rebound in impotence. The struggle then is for actual power, a struggle for life or death – since that is what revolution is. What meaning, under such conditions, can imprisonment have for people who hope to seize the power in a few weeks and imprison or destroy the men at the helm? From the point of view of the absolute value of the human personality, revolution must be ‘condemned,’ as well as war – as must also the entire history of mankind taken in the large. Yet the very idea of personality has been developed only as a result of revolutions, a process that is still far from complete. In order that the idea of personality may become a reality and the half-contemptuous idea of the ‘masses’ may cease to be the antithesis of the philosophically privileged idea of ‘personality,’ the masses must lift themselves to a new historical rung by the revolutionary crane, or, to be more exact, by a series of revolutions. Whether this method is good or bad from the point of view of normative philosophy, I do not know, and I must confess I am not interested in knowing. But I do know definitely that this is the only way that humanity has found thus far.

“These considerations are in no sense an attempt to ‘justify’ the revolutionary terror. To attempt to justify it would mean to take notice of the accusers. And who are they? The organizers and exploiters of the great world slaughter? The nouveaux riches who offer up to the ‘unknown soldier’ the aroma of their after-dinner cigars? The pacifists who fought war only when there was none, and who are ready to repeat their repulsive masquerade? Lloyd George, Wilson, and Poincar, who considered themselves entitled to starve German children for the crimes of the Hohenzollerns – and for their own crimes? The English conservatives or French Republicans who fanned the flames of civil war in Russia from a safe distance while they were trying to coin their profits out of its blood? This rollcall could be continued without end. For me, the question is not one of philosophical justification, but rather of political explanation. Revolution is revolution only because it reduces all contradictions to the alternative of life or death. Is it conceivable that men who solve the question of sovereignty over Alsace-Lorraine every half-century by means of mountains of human corpses are capable of rebuilding their social relations by nothing more than parliamentary ventriloquism? At any rate, no one has shown us as yet how it can be done. We were breaking up the resistance of the old rocks with the help of steel and dynamite. And when our enemies shot at us, in most cases with rifles from the most civilized and democratic nations, we replied in the same vernacular. Bernard Shaw shook his beard reproachfully over this in the direction of both parties, but no one took any notice of his sacramental argument.” [E]

Read that passage carefully and note how Trotsky slides between two very different issues. I fully agree that the Bolsheviks had a strong moral position as against the politicians who had organised the mass slaughter of World War One, and who then chose to cheat Germany with the Versailles Treaty. But those leaders also went back to normal politics after the war, some of them losing office by normal democratic politics, as Lloyd George did and as US President Wilson did. The Bolsheviks, having obtained unconstitutional power in the confusion of 1917, hung onto it continuously right up until the ignominious collapse of 1989 / 1991. Trotsky didn’t start calling it ‘dictatorship’ until he became dissatisfied with his own position after Lenin’s death.

While Lenin lived, he was clearly the boss, even if he had to get a consensus on important issues. It is likely that he tolerated Trotsky because Trotsky was useful, and because he knew that Trotsky could never actually displace him. It didn’t matter whether or not Trotsky wished to do so: he was mistrusted by the core of the Bolshevik Party, those who remembered him as an oppositionist from 1903 to 1917.

With Lenin dead, it became a matter of alliances. The top leaders were Trotsky, Stalin, Bukharin and Zinoviev & Kamenev, who functioned as a duo led by Zinoviev. Initially none of them had the power to lead alone. The leadership first stabilised with Zinoviev and Kamenev in alliance with Stalin: at the time most people saw Zinoviev as the new boss. Foolishly, Trotsky got into open disagreement with this new leadership. He had helped abolish the sort of regular or bourgeois-democratic politics in which you could be against the current government yet still loyal to the state, but then he acted as if nothing had happened when it suited him.

The lack of any clear distinction between opposition and treason wasn’t actually a Soviet peculiarity. It has been the norm for most governments for most of human history. It has been making a return since 1991 with the West’s ‘War on Terror’.

Parliamentary government and constitutional monarchs had been developing as the norm up to 1914. But every single parliament had plunged enthusiastically into the slaughter of World War One, with only a small minority dissenting. None of them coped well with the resultant mess.

Multi-party politics in Weimar Germany lasted for 15 calendar years and saw 12 different men served as Chancellor, the equivalent of Prime Minister. Hitler as Chancellor was the 13th, coming to power by an entirely democratic process and dismantling Weimar with general popular approval. Pretty well every other government east of Germany – and many west of it – had become some sort of autocracy or dictatorship by the early 1930s. Czechoslovakia was the main exception: at least it was a democracy for the Czechs as the dominant majority, with minorities able to vote but swamped by Czech power. Chamberlain abandoned this last democracy and then chose to fight in defence of Poland, which had become a right-wing autocracy that was hostile to Jews.

Back in the 1920s, Trotsky should have had the sense to remain quietly as an alternative, rather than setting himself up as an opposition. He’d helped create the state and had helped crush various oppositionists, some of them quite left-wing. Had he known when to shut up and control himself he might have come back later, as Mao was to do within Chinese Communism. But Trotsky was vain and was bad at working with others, he isolated himself.

I’ve called this article Trotsky, the Performing Bolshevik, meaning it in the sense of an actor performing. Orators and actors are close and oratory was Trotsky’s main gift. But I then saw a completely different meaning, ‘performing’ in the sense of doing his proper job, which he was, briefly. He performed OK under Lenin’s direction, when he would take it, as he did between 1917 and Lenin’s death. But when it came to a choice between vanity and the cause he claimed to serve, he went decisively for vanity.

As late as 1925, things were still fluid. Zinoviev wanted Trotsky expelled from the party: Stalin helped prevent it. Stalin then went into alliance with Bukharin, who had been biding his time and respecting party discipline and now became co-leader with Stalin. And in response to this, Zinoviev and Kamenev went into alliance with Trotsky as the United Opposition. This made no real sense: Zinoviev and Trotsky had denounced each other as traitors to the cause, yet now they were together again. It was the sort of thing you could get away with as leaders of small dedicated groups in exile. It made no sense for people who aspired to rule a state and who needed to offer politics that made sense to ordinary people.

The United Opposition failed. The government carried on trying to work with a hybrid system and with peasant agriculture, but this unstable coalition of interests broke down. It was also necessary to industrialise fast, faced with a growing threat of some sort of invasion. Stalin saw this: Bukharin did not and so Bukharin fell.

These shifts could have happened in a much less antagonistic way. The minority could have waited in the hope of persuading the others. Indeed, Stalin’s policies of fast industrialisation did pick up large numbers of former oppositionists who had wanted it earlier. It could have been seen as a matter of judgement rather than loyalty or political principle. And it worked: without Stalin’s ruthless collectivisation and industrialisation there would have been little hope of the Soviet Union surviving the Nazi invasion. Poland fell within weeks, and most outsiders believed that the Soviet Union would prove no stronger than Poland, which had been the victor in the Polish-Soviet war of 1920. Most historians nowadays try to slither round this awkward facts. The exception are the military historians, who deal with concrete facts and who can’t talk any sort of sense without recognising military efficiency and success where it exists, regardless of which side they sympathise with. Soviet tanks were the to best: the Germans copied the highly successful T34 for their much-feared Tiger Tank.

Stalin’s policies succeeded and it was open the other leaders to let him have his way for as long as the majority of the party supported his ideas. Some hardening of the system was inevitable. It has been the feature of every successful revolution that it institutionalises itself. A society can’t operate for long on revolutionary excitement, which runs out for most people, especially when there is nothing much to show for it. So it was open to disappointed leaders to say ‘all right, let us get on with what is possible for now’.

That wasn’t what happened. Trotsky did more than anyone else to make the divisions antagonistic, very much in line with his politics from 1903 to 1917, when he had split with almost everyone. He – and later Zinoviev and Kamenev as well – tried to function as an opposition while remaining part of a state/party structure in which opposition had already been criminalised. Stamped out while they were part of the leadership, at a time of pressing danger. The Soviet state was very new and raw and open to a coup or to fragmentation. Purging and shooting oppositionists within the Communist Party was not different in principle from purging and shooting socialists and anarchists while the Communist Party was consolidating its power.

Trotsky could offer no alternative except to say he should be in charge and then all would be well. Even if true, it was not feasible. He wasn’t even able to unite the various groups of Fringe Leninist. But he did encourage them to see mainstream Leninists as enemies, not as mistaken comrades. He wrote The Revolution Betrayed, not The Revolution Incomplete. The logic of his policies were to violently oppose those who were making a success of a new system incorporating many of the original objectives of 1917.

It could have been otherwise. Stalin might have been willing to work with Trotsky, if Trotsky would have had it so. Trotsky however was much too vain to work with a man whose personal qualities were very different – and much closer to the bulk of those who had made the Russian Revolution. Trotsky fancied himself as a brilliant leader floating above the broad vulgar masses, and might have continued to manage it had he worked with those who felt entirely at home among those broad vulgar masses. But this was beyond him:

“If one looks into it more deeply, one sees that Stalin, from the very moment that he came into close contact with Lenin, and especially since the October revolution, had always been suppressed and impotent in his opposition to him, and was all the more irritable because of it. Because of his enormous envy and ambition, Stalin could not help feeling at every step his intellectual and moral inferiority. It seems that he tried to get closer to me. Not until much later did I realize the meaning of at tempts to establish something approaching familiarity between us. But I was repelled by those very qualities that were his strength on the wave of decline – the narrowness of his interests, his empiricism, the coarseness of his psychological make-up, his peculiar cynicism of a provincial whom Marxism has freed from many prejudices without, however, replacing them with a philosophical outlook thoroughly thought out and mentally assimilated. Judged by some of his casual remarks, which at the time seemed accidental but actually were not, Stalin was trying to find in me support against Lenin, whose control he found so irksome. At every attempt of this sort, I instinctively drew away from him and walked on. I believe that the sources of his cold and at first cowardly but thoroughly treacherous hatred of me are to be found in this. He systematically gathered about him either men who were like him, or simple fellows who wanted to live without being bothered by subtle problems, or those whose feelings had been hurt. The first, the second, and the third groups all were numerous.

“There is no doubt that in routine work it was more convenient for Lenin to depend on Stalin, Zinoviev or Kamenev rather than on me. Lenin was always trying to save his time as well as every one else’s. He tried to reduce to a minimum the energy spent in overcoming friction. I had my own views, my own ways of working, and my own methods of carrying out a decision once it had been adopted. Lenin knew this well enough, and respected it. That was why he understood only too well that I was not suited for executing commissions. When he needed men to carry out his instructions, he turned to some one else. In certain periods, especially when Lenin and I had had a disagreement, this probably made his assistants believe that they were particularly close to him.” [F]

I doubt that Stalin would ever have disputed Lenin’s right to rule. He might have wanted to curb Lenin on particular matters. And Stalin had been given the tricky task of trying to make Lenin rest and recover after being nearly killed by an assassin. Lenin must have been immensely frustrated: having unexpectedly got supreme power after years on the margins, he had now been effectively deprived of it. Yet he had to be slowed down in case he worked himself to death: that was Stalin’s task and it was bound to create some antagonism between him and Stalin. Stalin probably did want to work with Trotsky, but Trotsky would not have it.

A partnership could have worked and Lenin may have wanted it. In some of the less-often-quoted passages of his famous ‘Testament’, he identifies the two of them as the two most talented individuals among his followers:

“Our Party relies on two classes and therefore its instability would be possible and its downfall inevitable if there were no agreement between those two classes. In that event this or that measure, and generally all talk about the stability of our C.C., would be futile. No measure of any kind could prevent a split in such a case. But I hope that this is too remote a future and too improbable an event to talk about.

“I have in mind stability as a guarantee against a split in the immediate future, and I intend to deal here with a few ideas concerning personal qualities.

“I think that from this standpoint the prime factors in the question of stability are such members of the C.C. as Stalin and Trotsky. I think relations between them make up the greater part of the danger of a split, which could be avoided, and this purpose, in my opinion, would be served, among other things, by increasing the number of C.C. members to 50 or 100.

“Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution. Comrade Trotsky, on the other hand, as his struggle against the C.C. on the question of the People’s Commissariat of Communications has already proved, is distinguished not only by outstanding ability. He is personally perhaps the most capable man in the present C.C., but he has displayed excessive self-assurance and shown excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work.

“These two qualities of the two outstanding leaders of the present C.C. can inadvertently lead to a split, and if our Party does not take steps to avert this, the split may come unexpectedly.” [F]

But Lenin had no coherent idea about how his subordinates could be made to work together without him. The ‘Testament’ would have created nothing but confusion had it been published at the time. Trotsky went along with the general decision to let it stay hidden, only starting to cite it after he had thoroughly thrown away his position within the party.

[A recent biography of Stalin has suggested that the ‘Testament’ was actually forged by Lenin’s wife.]

Trotsky withdrew from real politics in the mid-1920s and spent the rest of his life spreading the illusion that something different could have resulted from the highly authoritarian system that he had helped create under Lenin’s leadership. This view of Leninism has become popular, thanks to the dedicated efforts of people who have otherwise created nothing and have lost most of what they inherited from the work of earlier leftists.

On the basis of what he was saying up to 1917 and after the mid-1920s, Trotsky should certainly not have joined with Lenin in 1917. He should have remained where he was, a fringe element on the Menshevik-Internationalists. Except that the existence of the Menshevik-Internationalists was politically irrelevant. When the old system broke up violently amidst the general violence of World War One, some sort of authoritarian system was bound to happen.

You can’t seriously hope to radically change people without some sort of authoritarian system. You also can’t build a modern society among pre-modern people without some sort of authoritarian system. That doesn’t mean that an authoritarian system always produces results, any more than breaking eggs inevitably produces an omelette. You can quite easily have an authoritarian system that aspires to greatness but achieves nothing of substance. The Chinese Kuomintang after 1927 were just that, as were the disorganised governments of the northern warlords that the Kuomintang partly replaced in 1927. It was mainstream Leninism that rescued China: Westernised liberals were irrelevant, and so was China’s small Trotskyist movement.

To rebuild the ‘operative culture’ of a society is an immense task, it needs both cleverness and ruthlessness. It also requires that those making the changes stick together, or else throw out and denounce the dissenters. Failure to predict or accept that was a gap in the theories of Marx and Engels, they did not see the full extent of the problem. Engels’s writing about the origin of the state has some interesting insights but also a lot of misunderstandings and unrealistic notions. Though he describes the state as serving the interests of the ruling class, most of what he describes are cases of the state trying to strike a balance between rival class interests.

Engels’s view is imperfect, yet everyone before and most since have understood much less. Ralph Miliband wrote shallow rubbish in The State and Capitalist Society, and his two sons as Labour Party leaders seem to understand no more.

Trotsky could work within a dictatorial system for as long as he was one of the bosses, though without any clear explanation as to why things were so. The need for stability at the top wasn’t something he appreciated. The man’s biography shows his colossal vanity, he has a whole chapter about some bizarre accusations from Kerensky, the moderate socialist leader and determined warmonger whom Lenin overthrew in October 1917. The Germans letting Lenin travel through Germany in a sealed train had long since been recognised as a calculated risk by two sides that had very different aims, and that it was Lenin who got the better of the bargain. Trotsky wasn’t even involved in this: he made his way back from North America via Scandinavia, but got briefly interned by the British on the way. But having joined Kerensky in powerless exile, Trotsky felt he had to deal with any slur on his past.

Trotsky’s background was interesting, his father was part of a community of Jews who became farmers within the Tsarist Empire. But he really spends much too long on it, 39,000 words on minor details of his childhood before he gets to his involvement with revolutionary politics. [J] Not the right priority for a man claiming to be the proper leader of World Revolution.

As far as I know, the only other major Leninist to do a biography was Mao. There are some curious parallels between Trotsky and Mao. Both were children of prosperous farmers. Both showed brilliance at school. Both made their name first as agitators and organisers and then showed an unexpected talent for military matters. But Mao clearly understood the nature of the Leninist political machine. He was also not hampered by notions of European bourgeois individualism of the sort that Trotsky kept reverting to, even while he sneered at it when it got in his way.

Mao in his early political career had much better reason than Trotsky to complain. After the massacre of Communists when Chiang Kai-shek broke the Communists-Nationalist alliance created by Sun Yatsen, the various surviving leaders went their own way. Mao and Zhu De had build up a large Liberated Area with minimal outside help. But Mao then found himself shoved aside by the top party leaders when they got driven out of Shanghai. Bad military tactics then led to the loss of the Liberated Area and the start of the Long March, and still Mao waited. Only when he knew the party would back him did he move, creating a new leadership with himself unofficially at the core of it, but including as much of the old leadership as he could work with. Zhou Enlai was his most important acquisition, a partnership that lasted till the end of both their lives. But I suspect that it was based on shared goals rather than any particular liking for each other. Zhou was a major leader from early on, originally senior to Mao. But each of the movements he led ended with a bad defeat. He had the modesty and good sense to see his own limitations and try to work with a leader who could win, which was Mao’s gift.

Mao’s autobiography [which was dictated to Edgar Snow and appears in his book ‘Red Star Over China’] runs to 20,000 words in English translation, fewer words than Trotsky spent waxing lyrical about his happy childhood. Mao’s childhood wasn’t at all happy, but I believe that it was very educational, teaching him things that no one would learn at school. Mao’s father was a crude but clever man, a man who’d served for a time as a soldier at a time when this wasn’t much different from banditry. A man who then rose to be a rich peasant, showing all the grasping meanness one might expect from a poor uneducated man rising in a peasant society. Mao must have had an excellent understanding of the sort of men he was able to mould into China’s most formidable army: a large part of the Red Army came from defeated warlord armies, the sort of man his father had been and probably talked a lot about to his son. Mao would also have had a good understanding of the type of ‘upwardly mobile’ rich peasants that his father became, people he needed to work with in the Liberated Areas but eventually abolished as a class after 1949.

Mao also gained for himself a vast reputation among Chinese intellectuals and radicals. In part because he was a very good essayist and analyst, putting complex ideas in ways that made sense to people who had problems freeing themselves China’s ancient and sophisticated but also hopelessly outdated culture. Avoiding the jargon and mass of foreign quotations favoured by most of the Moscow-educated Chinese Communists. People who talked to Mao face to face found that he knew a great deal of Marxist theory and Western philosophy: Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley both report this. But Mao was wise enough to unpackage and re-sort those ideas and put them in terms that made sense to a Chinese audience.

But along with Mao’s popular essays, works that were fairly freely available during the years of the war against Japan, Mao was greatly helped by Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China, which circulated widely both in the original English and in unauthorised Chinese translation. One of those who helped Edgar Snow be given permission to visit the Communist base by Madam Sun, who had spent years quietly undermining the work of her brother-in-law Chiang Kai-shek, maintaining what she saw as the true legacy of Sun Yatsen. Covertly supporting the Chinese Communists as the only people actually able to change China after Chiang Kai-shek compromised with foreign power in 1927. She isn’t mentioned in Red Star Over China, and I only came to realise her importance gradually, finding her mentioned as significant in Snow’s later books. [L]

When Snow got to interview the CP leaders he had to extract an approximate life history from each of them by a series of questions. Mao was the notable exception: Mao instead offered to give him a coherent narrative of his own life, which was translated into English more or less as Mao told it. [K] It was an odd thing for him to do, or so it seems to me, though no one else seems to find it at all strange. It may also have been a political master-stroke, because Mao actually told the story of his own thinking, quite as much as he told of his deeds. So I got to wondering how he thought of it, and why it differed so much from his usual style, which mostly puts himself in the background and says little about how he arrived at any particular idea. Did someone advise him?

Madam Sun (Soong Ching-ling) is a very interesting character who has so far been badly served by her biographers, at least her English-language biographers. One biography was by Chang and Halliday, the same people who much later wrote Mao, the Unknown Story, in which they make no mention of their earlier work and instead accuse her of being a Comintern agent. This is as absurd as most of their other ‘discoveries’: plenty of people who knew her viewpoint in detail identified her as a moderate Christian Socialist, working with Chinese intellectuals who had taken on something like a Western liberal outlook. She had read Trotsky and admired Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. [M] But she also recognised that people with her own outlook were pretty much powerless in China after the Kuomintang turned away from radicalism. Someone had to radically restructure China, and globally someone had to defeat fascism, which was widely admired in both the USA and Britain up until they found themselves at war with it.

The modern and deep-rooted liberal-democracies of the USA and Britain could switch to anti-Fascism overnight when this became the Establishment line, and could generate formidable military machines from elements that existed already. In China, the basics were missing. The Nationalist soldiers were sometimes brave and sometimes died in large numbers, but they were never very effective and their system was rotten with corruption. During World War Two, pretty well every Westerner who got close enough to see Chiang Kai-shek’s government in action ended up despising it. Westerners who were in no way leftists also came to admire the Chinese Communists, seeing them as the only Chinese who behaved as a group in accordance with Western ideas of ‘normality’. As indeed they were: China had had its own pre-industrial norms, highly sophisticated and psychologically satisfying to most people, and you had to be an authoritarian radical to change that. Had Sun Yat-sen lived longer he might have kept the different elements together for a Moderate Socialist solution, but that wasn’t what happened. After the split of 1927 and the decay of moderate reformism, there was no serious alternative except the Chinese Communists. Madam Sun saw at least some of this, and explained it to Edgar Snow:

“‘I have never trusted any Chinese politician except Dr. Sun Yat-sen’. Of course it went without saying that she didn’t ‘trust’ any Western politician, either.

“‘You don’t trust a single Chinese politician today?’ I asked, astonished.

“She shook her head. Then she added: ‘I distrust Mao Tse-tung less than the others’.” [N]

My view is that Madam Sun saw that personal ties must be set aside in the monumental task of saving a broken-down state and civilisation. That part of the inadequacy of the post-Sun Kuomintang leadership was their inability to do this. But since her enemies were a curious mix of weakness and viciousness, she would take full advantage of it. Chang and Halliday’s biography records the following conversation in which she was threatened by a member of her brother-in-law’s government:

“‘If you were anyone but Madam Sun, we would cut your head off.’

“Ching-ling smiled. ‘If you were the revolutionaries you pretend to be, you’d cut it off anyway.'” [O]

Chiang Kai-shek’s government had killed plenty, openly or in secret or by arranging for them to be murdered by Chiang’s gangster allies. Many of the Kuomintang were little more than jumped-up bandits or gangsters themselves: Chiang had got very close to the Shanghai Green Gang in his early years, a point admitted and then evaded by his recent biographers. But gangsters can’t run a modern society: they are often used by fascists as foot-soldiers, but a typical fascist party includes many different elements and is normally led by people from entirely law-abiding backgrounds. Chiang Kai-shek’s government was a mess, inconsistently brutal, doing enough to alienate those Westernised Chinese who might have been incorporated as an inoffensive opposition, but unable to cope with a misbehaving member of the allied families at the core of government.

Madam Sun had absorbed enough of the outlook of the Western middle class to feel sympathy for Trotsky. But on the actual politics of China she was doing the exact opposite, trying to restore the nationalist-communist alliance and seeing the peasantry as the base. And seeing Mao as much the best man to do the job: perhaps the only man who could. Yet as an individual she was very much part of the stratum of radical intellectuals seeking to serve ‘the masses’, whereas Mao was an extremely clever peasant who had absorbed most of what the radical intellectuals could teach and also discovered that much of their wisdom was foolishness. He learned how to organise workers and peasants, in a culture where most factory workers were anyway urbanised peasants. Intellectuals he recognised as useful, but he had to assume they’d follow when he showed he understood the basic issues and could deliver results. Delving into their psychological subtleties wasn’t something he could do, as far as I can see. But it was very much Madam Sun’s home ground, she being the US-educated daughter of rich businessman Charlie Soong, a man who had had a western education and converted to Christianity.

It’s a matter of historic record that Madam Sun and others intentionally delivered a large number of semi-Westernised and privileged Chinese to the Communist cause. Probably not as many as she had hoped. It is also a curious fact that the Chinese Communists delayed setting up a government for many months after capturing Beijing, China’s traditional capital for many centuries. Delayed even after taking Nanjing, Shanghai and Wuhan, the only other plausible centres. As things turned out, Madam Sun and others from the middle ground ended up as a fringe influence: but that was mostly because the USA showed unremitting hostility to ‘Red China’ from 1946 until the early 1970s. US public opinion remained indignant that the Chinese had thrown out pro-American leaders and then humbled the USA itself in Korea. Being defeated by ‘Chinese laundrymen” was shocking in an era of much stronger racial prejudice, and it took Nixon as a realistic right-winger to ignore this and act on the power-political realities. And the end result was a China much more Westernised and less egalitarian than Mao intended, so you could say that Mao and Madam Sun each got something of what they wanted out of their alliance.

It is also quite possible that Mao would have been willing to go more slowly if the USA had ended its hostility sooner. This isn’t said by the current crop of experts, who follow the herd in sneering at Mao and being as nice as they can about the role of the West and of the USA in particular in their maltreatment of China from the Opium War onwards. I expect fashions to change again as China rises and the USA declines. Meantime I make my own judgements: US hostility to ‘Red China’ was foolish and it cost them plenty. And it was also costly for Westernised Chinese, none of whom seem to realise this nowadays when they are much more free to express themselves.

Back in the 1930s, none of this was foreseeable. Madam Sun had probably already decided to do her best to deliver the middle ground to the Communists, and specifically to Mao, though probably hoping for something less radical and authoritarian than actually happened. She had enough in common with Trotsky to appreciate the usefulness of the man’s autobiography in keeping up his reputation among radical intellectuals. She might have sent Mao a covert message that it would be a good idea for him to have his own autobiography, maybe transmitted via the helpful US reporter who was due to visit Mao.

That’s speculation: what we do know is that Mao did what none of the other leaders thought of doing. Snow reports that for some time, Mao had tried to talk just about politics and not about himself. But then he unexpectedly responded to Snow’s biographical questioning by offering to give a coherent narrative of his own. And while it’s perfectly possible that Mao with his literary talents and prodigious memory should have composed it over the few short days in which he dictated it to Snow and Snow’s translator, it is also possible that he’d been working on it for some time. [P]

What emerged is a highly interesting narrative, with Mao describing both the events of his life and the development of his thinking, admitting to many foolish actions before finding coherence within Leninism. It would be an interesting experiment for someone to take the first two or three sections, edit them slightly to remove clues and then read them to a Western audience without pre-warning them who this is. One might get some very interesting reactions.

I doubt Mao cared much what Westerners would think of him: he was out to change China and he succeeded far more than would have seemed possible in 1937. On the matter of power struggles within the party he speaks carefully, condemning only those who had already been officially denounced. If he said anything to Snow about Wang Ming, now seen as a bungler but then Mao’s official superior in the Comintern, he must have asked that it be not recorded. (Snow indicates something of the sort in the revised 1968 edition of Red Star Over China.) That was a method that actually worked, and led on to a coherent Chinese state a dozen years later. A state whose army was able to take on battle-hardened US and British armies in Korea and knock them back hundreds of miles, something that few other opponents have managed and a remarkable turn-round after the previous ineffectiveness of Chinese armies.

Madam Sun’s plotting paid off much sooner than that. Edgar Snow was not the first Westerner to want to visit the remote and isolated Communist bases, but it would have been very hard to smuggle a Westerner through the blockading armies and territories where Westerners were extremely rare and bound to attract attention. Except that two of those armies had stopped seriously fighting the Red Army and helped smuggle Snow in and out. And after Snow was back in Beijing they were visited by Chiang Kai-shek and arrested him: for some reason Chiang had not been expecting anything so drastic. This ‘Xian Incident’ nearly cost Chiang his life: in the initial confusion there was talk of sending him to the Communist area for a public trial, which could hardly have failed to end with his execution. Had this happened, later history would have come out very differently.

All recent sources agree that Stalin played a key role in saving Chiang Kai-shek’s life. They fail to ask, ‘supposing Chiang Kai-shek had instead been put on trial rather than being restored, what then would have happened?’ It would be remarkably hard to avoid the conclusion that Stalin was quite right. Without Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang would have either fragmented or capitulated to Japan. Possibly the Chinese Communists could have won in the long run, if just China and Japan are considered. But if Japan hadn’t been fighting the pro-US Chinese led by Chiang Kai-shek and his hugely impressive wife, the USA would have had no reason to blockade Japan. Japan would have had no immediate reason to attack the USA, which would have made it vastly harder and quite likely impossible for Roosevelt to get the USA involved in the war against Nazi Germany. As President he could do a lot, but he could not go to war without the agreement of Congress, which included many member sympathetic to fascism until fascism declared war on them. And had Japan attacked the Soviet Union from the east when the Nazis invaded from the west, Soviet survival would have been unlikely. Deprived of any hope of major allies, Britain would have had to make peace and a fascist world would have resulted.

What’s also interesting is that Mao obeyed Stalin’s instructions. He could have broken with Moscow at that point. He was publicly angry but he obeyed, he kept to the logic of Leninism for his entire life from 1921. (Including a willingness to view rival socialists as functionally traitors even if he might like them as individuals.)

It is conceivable that Mao was playing a double game: that he knew it necessary to make a deal with Chiang Kai-shek at a time when the Chinese Communists were rather weaker than they had been before the Long March. He might also have found it sensible not to risk his rather uncertain leadership on this point – he wasn’t officially boss as Party Chairman until 1943. So perhaps he covertly asked Moscow to order him to spare Chiang Kai-shek, the sort of game that Stalin would have gone along with. It’s possible: but it is much more likely that Mao saw just the balance in China and that it was Stalin who made the correct judgement on the basis of his wider understanding of the world.

Since Stalin in the mid-1930s was in a relatively weak position and emerged from World War Two enormously stronger, common sense would indicate that he had an excellent understanding of the world. This was indeed the standard viewpoint of both supporters and foes up until Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” and the start of De-Stalinisation. The combined voices of Trotsky and Khrushchev have managed to convince most people that Stalin was a bungler who kept on succeeding by sheer chance, never mind how improbably that would be. In Mao, the Unknown Story, Chang and Halliday apply the same ‘wisdom’ to the Chinese Revolution, and with even less logic. If Trotsky proved ineffective, it is possible that some other Leninist or non-Leninist option might have worked as well or better than Stalin. In China there had been a continuous record of hopeless failure, from the first attempts at modernising in the 1860s right up until the start of the People’s Republic.

China had had no net growth from the 18th century up until 1949. A limited growth of Westernised cities had been matched by massive rural decay. Under Mao the economy tripled in 25 years, a record outmatched only by countries like Japan that had already been through the process of modernisation and industrialisation under authoritarian governments. In 1950-1955, life expectancy at birth was 40.8 years in China, 37.9 years in the newly independent Republic of India. Infant mortality per 1,000 live births was 195 in China, 163.7 in India. By 1970-1975, China’s life expectancy was up to 63.2 years and infant mortality down to 61.1, while India’s figures were 50.4 years and infant mortality of 119.7. [Q] The setbacks of failed Great Leap Forward were part of the process: a more cautious government might have had fewer failures but would definitely have had fewer successes.

Attempts to modernise China on a Westernised basis had already fallen apart by 1921, when the Chinese Communist Party was formally inaugurated. Mao attended as one of two delegates from his home province of Hunan, where he had played a leading role in forming one of a number of small groups that had been building up towards the creation of a coherent Leninist party. The road was to prove hard – Trotsky complained bitterly about the cost of the Kuomintang alliance, but failed to consider whether the Chinese Communists might have remained a marginal movement of intellectuals without that alliance. (The fate of some other mainstream Leninists parties and of all Trotskyist groups without exception.) Also in 1921 China was in a complete mess, failing to build on its overthrow of the monarchy in 1911-12. The Soviet model was attractive because the Soviets had turned their anarchic revolution of 1917 into a highly coherent state by 1920, a trick that the Chinese hoped to master and did in fact master, in the long run.

In Russia in 1917, there were other options. Lenin broke with existing norms by dispersing the Constituent Assembly that had been elected to decide what the new state should be after the overthrow of the Tsar. Lenin decided that the Constituent Assembly wasn’t fit to decide that and that he would do the job himself, with Trotsky as an enthusiastic supporter. And this applied not just to Russia, where indeed the shallowness of electoral politics made its success unlikely: Lenin insisted that the new Third International should look for something very much the same throughout the world. Trotsky was very much part of this, and then later complained when moderate Socialists whom he had declared war on while in power were disinclined to grant him asylum while he was in exile. What game did he think he was playing?

Trotsky in opposition and then in exile spread a seductive yarn about what had been done in 1917. One partial believer may have been Khrushchev: Simon Sebag Montefiore gives an indication of this in one of his biographies of Stalin, though he mentions it in passing as if it were a matter of no significance. (If anyone knows more, please let me know.)

With or without Trotskyist inspiration, Khrushchev preached a similar message, though with Trotsky himself ignored or still classed as a traitor. But there was no serious difference between what Lenin began and what Stalin later developed: no one has ever developed coherent politics on a belief that there was.

The circumstances of Leninist dictatorship in Russia were the senseless slaughter and destruction of World War One, then the failure of the victors to create a decent peace, and finally the rise of Fascism. Socialists should have accepted the past and moved on, rather than denying it and trying for an illusory re-working of romantic revolution. That was the contribution of Trotsky as Oppositionist, and we are still paying for it.

You can of course take the long view, as Trotsky did. He ends his biography with a rather ridiculous quote from Proudhon, early anarchist and a former associate of Marx who became a bitter opponent, with Marx mostly starting the disagreement. Trotsky puts it thus:

“On April 26, 1852, Proudhon wrote to a friend from prison:

“‘The movement is no doubt irregular and crooked, but the tendency is constant. What every government does in turn in favor of revolution becomes inviolable; what is attempted against it passes over like a cloud: I enjoy watching this spectacle, in which I understand every single picture; I observe these changes in the life of the world as if I had received their explanation from above; what oppresses others, elevates me more and more, inspires and fortifies me; how can you want me then to accuse destiny, to complain about people and curse them? Destiny – I laugh at it; and as for men, they are too ignorant, too enslaved for me to feel annoyed at them.’

“Despite their slight savor of ecclesiastical eloquence, those are fine words. I subscribe to them.” [R]

If Proudhon’s viewpoint was right then Marx was very seriously wrong, and should be condemned for the savage contempt he expressed for Proudhon in Poverty of Philosophy. My own view was that Proudhon was looking back to a dying world, a world of small production that had failed to defend itself against the new capitalist order, and would go on failing.

Contrary to Marx, I suspect that the dying world of small production might have rallied. But a movement to defend small property would have had to get control of the state to flourish. Without a state with enforcement power, any small group can start turning itself into new local state: that is how criminal gangs develop when they get hegemony. Almost all of the defenders of small property were anti-state, and so doomed. At times there was an effective defence of small property by fascist governments, but not consistently.

Anarchism in Russia had flourished under the Tsars and ceased to be significant under the Bolsheviks. Trotsky played a part in stamping it out – but it was probably doomed anyway. Power-orientated anarchism generally flourishes when there is a powerful state that is old-fashioned and applies an authoritarian outlook in a half-hearted and ineffective way. The outbreak of real anarchy usually cures the illusions of most of the power-orientated anarchists, with many signing up to a new authoritarian order. Both Leninism and Fascism included many ex-Anarchists.

Power-orientated anarchism as a fringe phenomenon can be attractive. But in those few instances where it becomes a major force in the society, the drawbacks becomes clear. The anarchist view is that you’re only free if you’re doing things their way. Or within a limited range of things they approve of. This is tolerable among those anarchists who favour education and persuasion – at worst you can simply ignore them. It is different with power-orientated anarchists, who believe in ‘direct action’. Who fail to see that irregular acts of destruction, intimidation or violence are in themselves profoundly authoritarian.

The other drawback is that irregular acts of destruction, intimidation or violence tend to lose out to the same system regularised as police and army. The actual history of real-world subversive movement shows that it is not enough for them to be popular, not enough for them to have majority support. (Which no actual anarchist movement has ever had.) They only win if they institutionalise themselves with their own police and army and regular bureaucracy. It would be nice if it were otherwise, but failing to face up to observed realities does no good to anyone.

Power is always complex and ambiguous. Trotskyism has something in common with power-orientated anarchism, in as much as both apply different standards to power that they exercise and power exercised on them by someone else.

Trotsky in power once told some of his opponents to ‘lie quietly in the dustbin of history’, or something of the sort. The English translations of whatever it was he said vary quite a bit. According to John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World it was:

“Trotzky, standing up with a pale, cruel face, letting out his rich voice in cool contempt, “All these so-called Socialist compromisers, these frightened Mensheviki, Socialist Revolutionaries, Bund-let them go! They are just so much refuse which will be swept into the garbage-heap of history!” [T]

The moderate socialists had helped get Trotsky out of British internment and into Russia when Russia briefly had a Western-style government. Trotsky complains a great deal about similar people in Germany and other countries being unwilling to give him refuge. He eventually found a home in Mexico, where politics were largely based on the gun and the rulers probably saw no need to take him seriously.

Finding himself cast down, he tried to take a long view:

“Toward the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the German Reformation must have appeared the work of men who had broken out of a lunatic asylum. To a certain extent, it really was: European humanity broken out of the medieval monastery. Modern Germany, England, the United States and the modern world in general would never have been possible without the Reformation with its countless victims. If victims are generally to be permitted – but whose permission could one ask ? – it is certainly victims that move humanity forward.

“The same can be said of the French Revolution. That narrow-minded, reactionary pedant, Tame, imagined that he was making a most profound discovery when he established the fact that a few years after the execution of Louis XVI, the French people were poorer and more unhappy than under the old regime. But the whole point of the matter is that such events as the great French Revolution cannot be viewed on the scale of ‘a few years.’ Without the great revolution, the entire new France would never have been possible, and Taine himself would still have been a clerk in the service of some contractor of the old regime instead of being able to blacken the revolution that opened a new career to him.

“A still greater historical perspective is necessary to view the October revolution. Only hopeless dullards can quote as evidence against it the fact that in twelve years it has not yet created general peace and prosperity. If one adopts the scale of the German Reformation and the French Revolution, representing two different stages in the evolution of bourgeois society, separated from each other by almost three centuries, one must ex press amazement at the fact that a backward and isolated Russia twelve years after the revolution has been able to insure for the masses of the people a standard of living that is not lower than that existing on the eve of the war. That alone is a miracle of its kind. But of course the significance of the October revolution does not lie in that. The revolution is an experiment in a new social regime, an experiment that will undergo many changes and will probably be remade anew from its very foundations. It will assume an entirely different character on the basis of the newest technical achievements. But after a few decades and centuries, the new social order will look back on the October revolution as the bourgeois order does on the German Reformation or the French Revolution. This is so clear, so incontestably clear, that even the professors of history will understand it, though only after many years.” [S]

All of this I agree with. But future historians are also likely to ask, ‘who was useful to the cause? Who damaged their own side from personal vanity? Who knew when to bide their time until people were ready to follow? Who showed childish petulance because people weren’t ready to follow without good evidence of competence?’

It was also unimpressive that the Bolsheviks in the 1920s hadn’t made ordinary people any better off economically. If the Soviet Union had been successfully invaded and overthrown in 1930, then it might have been viewed by most people as a wholly pointless exercise that had appealed just to some radical intellectuals and wild proletarians.

What changed the balance of the world was Stalin managing a vast economic advance in the 1930s, and then showing that the new state was strong enough to destroy the gigantic Nazi war machine. (Even after the Second Front was opened by the West, two-thirds of the Nazi forces and most of the best units remained in the East.)

It would be a good idea for modern leftists to remind everyone how much of modern freedom was pioneered by the Soviet Union. Britain in the 1930s upheld hierarchy, inequality and the continued existence of the Empire. The USA in the 1930s championed mostly the rights of white males, primarily those of North-West European origin and with distinct suspicion of Jews. The Soviet Union gave women rights that women in the West didn’t get till decades later. Racial equality and an end to imperialism were also upheld as ideals.

Soviet practice fell short of those ideals, but their simple assertion was significant in an era when racism of various sorts was mainstream and respectable in the West. When many people including some socialists thought that colonial rule was good for those who were ruled.

The New Right prefer to wriggle round such changes, while denouncing the left for its connections with Stalin. It’s a fools game to deny it; the ‘popular front’ connections are real enough. But working with Stalin as leader of the main leftwing and anti-Fascist power can be defended as the best on offer at the time. It’s not that anyone wants to do it again, but it very definitely did have to be done once.


[A] My Life, by Leon Trotsky. First published: 1930 by Charles Schribner’s Sons, NY Transcription and HTML Markup: 1998 by David Walters 2000 edition by Chris Russell for Marxists Internet Archive. Chapter 12 – The Party Congress And The Split

[B] Ibid.

[C] Chapter 34, The Train

[D] Chapter 37 Disagreements Over War Strategy

[E] Chapter 39 Lenin’s Illness

[F] Ibid.

[G] [http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/dec/testamnt/congress.htm]

[H] Chapter 25, Concerning Slanderers

[J] Nearly 17% of a book of 230,000 words in English translation.

[K] You can find the whole text at [http://www.humanrights-china.org/meetingchina/menu_leader_m01.htm]. Red Star Over China is still in print and still well worth reading.

[L] Snow, Edgar. Journey To The Beginning, pages 151-2

[M] Ibid, page 94

[N] Ibid, page 95

[O] Chang, Jung and Halliday, Jon, Mme Sun Yat-sen (Soong Ching-ling), Penguin Books 1986, page 71.

[P] It’s also conceivable that Mao’s own notes survive somewhere, probably closely guarded along with a great deal of other confidential material. Someone trusted by the present leadership could try asking after it.

[Q] [http://esa.un.org/unpp/p2k0data.asp] (These are official UN figures for many countries.)

[R] My Life, by Leon Trotsky. Chapter 45, The Planet Without A Visa

[S] Ibid.

[T] On-line at [http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ten_Days_That_Shook_the_World/Chapter_IV]. Chapter IV: The Fall of the Provisional Government

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2011. Elsewhere, I have written about how some Trotskyists became NeoCons, while keeping many of their ideas intact.