frontline 11

What is a 'Trot' Anyway?

It seems the political label "Trotskyism" has had a modern resurrection in Scotland. Since the elections to the Scottish Parliament where the SSP made such an important break-through media commentators and our opponents have peppered their political insults with the phrase "Trots". In this article Nick McKerrell looks at just what the term means anyway.

Jack McConnell, the First Minister, as reported by the Sunday Herald in response to a criticism levelled by the Scottish Socialist Party and raised by one of his constituents said "don't believe the mad Trots". 1 George Kerevan, member of the SNP and associate editor of the Scotsman, in his analysis of the election stated if the SSP had won two more seats "the Trots would have been in pole position to wreck what is left of the Scottish economy".

The former right wing deputy leader of the Labour Party and reinvented media commentator Roy Hattersley said in a recent newspaper column that the SSP promoted a "strange combination of Marxism, Trotskyism and Scottish sentimentality"! 2

This small selection is a fragment of the use of Leon Trotsky's name in relation to the SSP, but are such descriptions accurate? What does the phrase Trotskyist mean in Scotland in 2003?

Why are the SSP "Trots"?

It is unquestionable that throwing the phrase Trotskyism at the SSP by our political opponents particularly New Labour shows a lack of political imagination. Faced with a successful political opposition from the left they fall back on the battles on the past.

Many Labour MPs, MSPs and Councillors gained their right wing credentials in the eighties battling the organised left in the Labour Party. One of the strongest forces within the Labour Party was the Militant which came from an explicitly Trotskyist background.

The use of political insult became part of the right wing of the Labour movement's discourse against the left along with a whole host of bureaucratic manoeuvres and an organisational witch-hunt.

"Trotskyism" as a phrase in isolation is meaningless to most people in society. By using it a description of the SSP (and the Militant and other left groups in the eighties) right wing political forces are trying to portray us as an outside force, slightly strange and dogmatic adherents to an individual Russian.

There is a political reason for this. In the current era many socialists are sceptical of an individual or one philosophy that claims to have all the answers. This is particularly true since the collapse of the undemocratic Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia in 1989. Ironically given his historic struggle against the monstrosities of those regimes in which he and many of his family members gave his life the ideas of Leon Trotsky are also affected by this.

SSP MSP Carolyn Leckie put this school of thought well when she stated in an interview ""We're anti any kind of 'isms' …especially isms that are isms of a name, because that whole idea of idolatory is the complete antithesis of what we believe in." 3

So are these labels important and indeed are they accurate?

The Birth of "Trotskyism".

It is important to note that Leon Trotsky, the Russian Revolutionary, did not coin the phrase Trotskyism himself. As with Lenin and Marx, two other socialists who had "isms" named after them he was uncomfortable with the use of the phrase focussing as it did on him as an individual.

The title "Trotskyism" was actually created by opponents of Trotsky within Russia who argued that he was attempting to split the Communist Party after it successful led the Russian Revolution. It was explicitly done to emphasise a difference with Lenin the other key leader of the revolution.

This began in the early 1920s within the Russian Communist Party; in contradiction to many superficial historians this was not a personal power struggle between Trotsky and other individuals like Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. It was a reflection of deep political struggles that were ongoing at that time.

At this time several European revolutions had collapsed in the aftermath of the victorious October events in 1917. Socialists in Italy, Hungary and critically Germany for a combination of factors saw their hopes crushed. The newborn socialist state in Russia found itself isolated and although victorious in the civil war against the capitalist forces - in no small part due to the military tactics of Trotsky as head of the Red Army – this had come at a major price.

The poverty and famine suffered during the war had been met with a centralising process within the workers' state and the Communist Party. As Shachtman a Marxist at that time wrote "The intensely military regime imposed upon the party by the demands of the civil war had not only outlived the war period itself but had in some respects become more dangerous." 4

A vast bureaucracy of appointed officials had begun to emerge with its own interests and agenda. Stalin himself personified this. As the revolution became more isolated so the strength of this bureaucracy grew. Lenin recognised these problems and tried to launch a campaign against bureaucracy within the party, although his health was fading badly at this stage.

The defining international event that strengthened this bureaucratic onslaught was the utter defeat of the German workers in a doomed uprising in October 1923. Not only were there bad mistakes made by the leaders in Germany but they were completely misled by the leaders of the Communist International including Stalin and Zinoviev – until this time an organisation with a huge amount of credibility.

This defeat completely disoriented the German Communist party - the largest CP outside of the Soviet Union – and the working class. It also compounded the bureaucracy within the Soviet Union.

Within the Communist Party Trotsky pointed this out and began to build an opposition to the bureaucratic majority within the Party – the Left Opposition. It was in this context that "Trotskyism" was created.

Exploiting the fact that Trotsky had not joined the Bolsheviks until the summer in 1917, the poor health and absence of Lenin and the genuine fatigue of the Russian working class the leadership launched an onslaught against Trotsky and his supporters.

Shachtman writes that the official Communist press "was filled with interminable articles and speeches by the party leaders" which attacked Trotsky whilst significantly trying to boast of their own "Leninist" credentials.

Thus the phrase "Trotskyism" was born. However throughout the 1920s and 30s the situation worsened. Revolutions and potentially revolutionary situations were initially mislead and then completely sabotaged by the bureaucracy in China, Britain and with particular vehemence in Spain.

Stalin, as the supreme representative of the bureaucracy, consolidated his power base and promoted the theory of "socialism in one country". By implementing a five year plan, ironically initially argued for by Trotsky and attacked by the majority of the leadership, there had been an advance in the living conditions in the Soviet Union which gave Stalin a stronger base of support.

Using his control of the party and state Stalin moved from theoretical debate with Trotsky to a full blown organisational and physical attack on Trotsky and his supporters.

Trotsky was exiled (and eventually murdered in Mexico); his supporters were imprisoned and sent to Siberia. Grotesque show trials took place within the Soviet Union which Stalin eventually used against his one-time allies against "Trotskyism" like Zinoviev and Kamenev.

The event which led Trotsky to conclude that a break with the Communist Party and the Communist International was inevitable was the rise to power of Nazism in Germany in 1933. This occurred specifically because of the policies of the Stalinists both within Germany and in the International itself (For a full analysis of the Stalinist approach see previous article on the united front)5.

Following this Trotsky established and built a new international, the Fourth. He did this at an incredibly difficult time when fascism was growing across the globe and Stalinism had a powerful hold within the Soviet Union and the International Communist Parties.

What were Trotsky's ideas?

So that is the context in which the concept of Trotskyism came into being but it would be wrong to say it was totally reactive. That is Trotsky had a coherent set of ideas which he put forward to counter Stalinism and right wing reformist accommodation with capitalism.

In essence Trotsky provided a Marxist critique of what was going on in Russia in International under almost impossible conditions. He almost single-handedly kept the ideas of scientific socialism alive in the dark period of the 1930s. For this alone never mind the great revolutionary role he played within Russia he is a giant of the socialist world.

The Permanent Revolution

Stalinist and other critics of Trotsky attacked his concept of permanent revolution. This was used with particular affect within the Soviet Union as the people in the 1920s were exhausted following years of revolution, counter-revolution and war. The idea of embarking upon yet more revolutionary upheaval seemed anathema.

But this like much else at the time and since in studies of Trotsky is a distortion. The concept of the permanent revolution centred on the direction a world socialist insurrection would take particularly in the developing world.

A formalistic Marxist approach was that if a country was largely agrarian and had not fully developed capitalism – a capitalist revolution was necessary before socialist insurrection could be on the agenda. Trotsky rejected this for in the modern epoch capitalism could no longer take a revolutionary role anywhere in the globe it had entered a period of reaction and decay. Thus in all countries the central role had to be taken by the working class even where they were in a minority, they alone were the revolutionary class to take that role.

This for Trotsky was proven by the events of the Russian Revolution, both in the unsuccessful revolution of 1905 and the two revolutionary movements in 1917 where the capitalist class had played an utterly backward role. Lenin also largely agreed with this position although he left as a more open question the role the peasants would play in the socialist revolution.

What they were both completely opposed to was a "stages" approach. That is holding back socialist revolutions to appease a more conservative capitalist element. This was explicitly what was done by Stalinism in country after country like China, India and Spain.

A caricature of Trotsky's thought would be that in the concept of permanent revolution nothing else mattered internationally apart from workers entering periods of struggle. This approach would ignore oppressed peoples across the globe moving against their oppressors like the Zapatistas in southern Mexico, the seizure of land by landless groups in Brazil and India, the struggle for indigenous peoples' rights.

Further in the capitalist world no engagement would be made with movements that were not explicitly tied to working class struggle – the battle for gender equality, for gay rights, community campaigns indeed even the struggle for national self determination would be a distraction.

This model does remain a caricature and in Scotland in 2003 it would be impossible to conceive of socialists taking such a position. In the past however there were elements of the nominally "Trotskyist" groups who partially conformed to this stereotype.

The nature of Russia

Another common feature of Trotsky's work – arguably his most important – was his characterisation of the Soviet Union. Amongst "Trotskyist" groups this is a generally common thread apart from the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and its international whose founder Tony Cliff broke with Trotsky's work to develop the concept of state capitalism.

Trotsky's writings on the Soviet Union from his three volume history of the Russian Revolution to the Revolution Betrayed (written in exile) represent some of his best and most readable work. This is perhaps unsurprising given his revolutionary background and own life experience.

At root what Trotsky argued was that the Stalinist reaction within the Soviet Union had created a new social form. It was not capitalist 6 neither was it a socialist society. A vast military bureaucratic dictatorship had been created but on the foundation of a workers' revolution. Thus the economic relations were not that of a capitalist state.

Trotsky argued that a political revolution was needed to overthrow the bureaucratic "caste" as he characterised it. Without this counter-revolution would triumph and capitalism would be restored because the bureaucracy would become a brake on development, an "absolute fetter".

Although it took longer to develop than he probably imagined the events in 1989-91 across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself totally confirmed this analysis. The utter economic devastation caused by the dead hand of the bureaucracy and then the re-introduction of gangster capitalism showed the strength of his perspectives.

Now in 2003 with even the Stalinist Soviet Union a distant or non-existent memory to a generation of young people this vital part of Trotsky's thought may seem a point of historical debate. In some ways this is true no serious socialist group would insist its members subscribe entirely to Trotsky's view on what happened in the Soviet Union.

However in another way the analysis of Stalinism shows the continuing strength of Trotsky's approach. Rising above the pressures of living in a brutal period of capitalism and the personal attacks he suffered from Stalinism he used a brilliant analytical mind to fully understand what was going in the world.

Building revolutionary forces.

But it is ABC to state that Trotsky was not simply a political analyst. He stood for political action. He marshalled genuine Marxist forces within the ranks of the Fourth International.

With his publication of the Transitional Programme in the 1930s Trotsky emphasised that the crisis in capitalism could be crystallised in the crisis of leadership. Stalinism and reformism both offered dead-ends to workers in struggle. A new revolutionary core had to be developed.

Through using a transitional method revolutionary socialists could win people to their banner by struggling for day to day demands while raising the vision of a new socialist society. In some contexts this led to followers of Trotsky undertaking "entryist" work in mass working class parties led by reformists or Stalinists – the tactic adopted by Militant in post – war Britain.

However the model of the type of party Trotsky believed revolutionaries should build is still one of dispute. It is incorrect to say that Trotsky had one organisational blueprint that needed to be adopted by all genuine revolutionaries – this is also true of Lenin. Critics and some nominal supporters of Trotsky both adopt this position – that there is a chemically pure "revolutionary party" that can be developed. This produces a caricature of shadowy Trotskyist group with little internal democracy.

The Fourth International showed a large degree of internal tension over this question even in the last years of Trotsky's life. It splintered under the pressure of the Second World War and its aftermath, which saw the continual strengthening of Stalinism and a new lease of life.

Disputes arose over state capitalism, the nature of the revolution in the developing world 7, the Eastern European states, whether entryism should be adopted and the precise structure of revolutionary parties.

One of the greatest advantages in labelling yourself Trotskyist in the post-war period was that it distanced you from the undemocratic Stalinist states whilst identifying yourself clearly with radical socialism. This is unquestionably one of the factors which allowed certain Trotskyist groups to build significant bases of working class support across the world – notably Militant in Britain in the 1970s and 80s and several groups throughout Latin America.

The problem was that there was no unity amongst the groups. In their heyday the Stalinists and their allies in the Labour movement could mockingly gloat at the "57 varieties" of Trotskyist organisation.

However, the collapse of Stalinism in the late 80s and early 90s although coinciding with a moderate fillip in the fortunes of capitalism presented opportunity for a re-alignment of the far left. It was often pointed out by Marx that political developments often lag behind economic situations and this was reflected in the development of new left groups – which did not really significantly develop until the mid-90s.

In Scotland the political leadership for this development came from Scottish Militant Labour – from a Trotskyist tradition – and initially the organisation it was a part of the Committee for a Workers' International. The proposal to launch the Scottish Socialist Alliance in 1995 was essentially the genesis of the process that resulted in the success of the SSP in electoral terms in May 2003.

The decision to form the SSP in 1998 was attacked by the CWI who had changed their position and accused the leadership of SML of dilution of revolutionary principles and structures. This eventually led to the ISM breaking with this international. Essentially the SWP refused to join the SSP (and the Scottish Socialist Alliance) for the same reason. Was this a more "Trotskyist" position?

It is another historical irony that while the SSP leadership are denounced as "Trots" by the right wing in Scotland other groups on the international left chide the SSP for rejecting the work of Trotsky.

One recent example of this can be seen in a review of Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan's excellent introduction to the ideas of socialism in Scotland "Imagine" in a CWI international publication. This argues that the book is deeply flawed because it abandons Trotsky and his "most important idea – the struggle to build a new revolutionary party and international"8 (my emphasis NMcK)

Thus the entirety of Trotsky's life work, his struggle, the masses of material he wrote is distilled down in the eyes of the CWI to the building of a particular revolutionary party – no doubt the model put forward by this particular international. This is a true distortion of Trotsky's work.

What's in a name?

Is the title "Trotskyist" important in 2003 in Scotland? The success of the SSP in electoral terms and in political growth across the whole of Scotland can in some respects be traced back to decisions made by the leadership of Scottish Militant Labour in the 1990s, now primarily gathered in the ISM.

This building of a pluralist dynamic unified party that has re-ignited the forces of socialism in Scotland and debate over Marxist ideas contrasts sharply with the considerably weaker position in England where there are many groups who claim to be Trotskyist. It would seem that actions speak louder than words here.

Emphasising the use of specific phraseology or indeed one particularly model of "revolutionary party" misses the point of Trotsky's work. He adapted his Marxist analysis of society to the dramatic situation faced by the world in his time – from that he drew political and organisational conclusions.

The potential to develop a new pluralist international left is there today if that similar method of Trotsky is used across the globe. Insisting on the label Trotskyist or on a particular organisational form would actually achieve the opposite.

By developing the ideas and practices of socialism in the SSP and raising the vision of a new socialist society internationally we can truly continue the work of Trotsky and other giants of international socialist history.


1 Sunday Herald, April 27th 2003.
2 Guardian, June 3rd 2003.
3 Sunday Herald, August 3rd 2003.
4 Max Shachtman, The Genesis of Trotskyism, 1933.
5 The United Front today, Frontline issue 8
6 Which essentially was what Cliff and some others before him had argued.
7 This was particularly pertinent in the wake of the successful Chinese Revolution in 1948.
8 Per-Ale Westerlund, International Socialist Voice, 8.6.03