Trotsky Reconsidered: Claude Lefort’s Perspective

I recently re-read the chapter on China in CLR James’s World Revolution. It’s titled, “Stalin Ruins the Chinese Revolution.” It was published in 1936–1937. Not surprisingly, at virtually every turn, James invokes Trotsky as the one who was always right but who was not able to outmaneuver Stalin. While the chapter has lots of useful information, it’s not especially sophisticated in its analysis—certainly nothing like the sophistication that James would display a year later in The Black Jacobins. As is well known, James subsequently went well beyond Trotskyism in, among other documents, his Notes on Dialectics, I think that book is a lot about an attempt to precisely identify where Trotsky went wrong.

I believe that, in spite of all the ink spilled that says the opposite, Trotsky may have been closer to Stalin than he was to Lenin. That’s the argument made by Claude Lefort (one of the leading members of Socialisme ou Barbarisme) in a 1948 essay, “The Contradiction of Trotsky.” He criticizes Trotsky for having over and over again pursued a conciliationist approach towards Stalin and failing to uphold what Lefort claims would have been Lenin’s positions if he had still been alive. The full essay is at libcom. Here are a few excerpts:

Trotsky in Words vs Trotsky in Deeds:

A reading of Stalin, or of the earlier The Revolution Betrayed or My Life, would lead one to believe that the attitude of Trotsky and of the Left Opposition, in the great period of 1923–7, was a perfectly rigorous one. It is as if Trotsky, “bearer” of revolutionary consciousness, had been swept aside by the inexorable course of things that were then developing in a reactionary direction. There were a great many who, taking sides against Trotsky and in a way for Stalin, reproached Trotsky only for not having been realistic enough, not having been able to “adapt” the politics of revolutionary Russia to the difficult circumstances of a capitalist world undergoing reconsolidation. They did not dispute that Trotsky had then adopted a clearly revolutionary attitude, but it was precisely this attitude that they denounced as abstract. In any case, it is not usually denied that the Left Opposition had a coherent strategy, whether it was justified at the level of revolutionary morality or whether it was regarded as inopportune. Trotsky himself largely lent support to this view. In his works, he speaks of this period with perfect serenity, repeating that he acted as he had to act in the given objective situation. History, he says in essence, was taking a new course. No one could block the ebbing tide of the revolution. Thus, recalling the events of the decisive year 1927, he writes in My Life:

We went to meet the inevitable debacle, confident, however, that we were paving the way for the triumph of our ideas in a more distant future … It is possible by force of arms to check the development of progressive historical tendencies; it is not possible to block the road of the advance of progressive ideas for ever. That is why, when the struggle is one for great principles, the revolutionary can only follow one rule: Fais ce que tu dois, advienne que pourra. (8)

It would be quite admirable, when one is in the midst of historical action, to retain such lucidity and to be able to stand above day-to-day events, perceiving what is permanent in the heart of what is immediately present. But one must ask whether Trotsky was as lucid when he was acting as he was when he was writing. For it is one thing to judge one’s own past actions, to look back on a relatively closed period in which the most diverse actions seem to take on a single, absolute meaning; it is a quite different thing to act in an equivocal situation with an indeterminate future. In his Stalin Trotsky defines once again the principles of the Left Opposition in its anti-Stalinist struggle:

No Regrets:

Indeed it is striking to see, when one examines the events of this period closely, that the struggle of the Left Opposition against Stalin almost never assumed a revolutionary form and always developed around compromise. The problem is not the one that Trotsky poses, namely, whether it was possible or desirable to undertake a struggle for power. The question was to lead the struggle—or to lay the ground for the future—in a revolutionary spirit. The Bolsheviks were in retreat between 1908 and 1911 and postponed until later the struggle for the seizure of power; but, on the theoretical plane, they did not make the slightest concession to their adversaries. At no time did the Bolsheviks ever indulge in a policy of compromise or conciliation with Tsarism. By contrast, it is Trotsky himself who declared in November 1934, referring to his attitude to Eastman when the latter revealed on his own initiative the existence of Lenin’s Testament: “My statement at that time on Eastman cannot be understood except as an integral part of our line, which, at that time, was orientated towards conciliation and appeasement.” (11) In 1929 he was writing from the same point of view and in a much more brutal manner:

Right up to the last minute, I avoided the struggle, for, in the first stage, it had the character of an unprincipled conspiracy directed towards me, personally. It was clear to me that a struggle of this nature, once begun, would inevitably assume an exceptional vigour and, in the conditions of the revolutionary dictatorship, might lead to dangerous consequences. This is not the place to try to find out whether it was correct at the cost of the greatest personal concessions to tend to preserve the foundations of a common work, or whether it was necessary for me to throw myself into an offensive all along the line, despite the absence, for such an offensive, of adequate political bases The fact is that I chose the first solution and that in spite of everything I do not regret it. (12)

On the Eastman Affair:

It is true that the struggle against Trotskyism had not yet come out into the open and, more importantly, that Stalinism was only just emerging as a political entity. Trotsky’s concessions seemed all the more tragic when battle commenced. After the first phase of this battle, after Trotsky had triggered off a struggle in favour of the New Course, after he had been the object of a campaign of systematic attacks from the politbureau, after Stalin had put forward his view of “socialism in one country,” (19) Trotsky published an article in Pravda (January 1925) in which he denies ever having thought of opposing a platform to the Stalinist majority.’(20) This was to state clearly that there was no fundamental divergence between him and this majority. Capitulation appears again in that year 1925, on the occasion of the Eastman affair. In a work entitled Since Lenin Died, the American journalist, a Bolshevik sympathizer, had taken it upon himself, as I have already indicated, to reveal the existence and the content of Lenin’s Testament, which Trotsky, in agreement with the Central Committee, had thought good to conceal not only from the Russian masses, but also from the party militants and from communists throughout the world. Trotsky’s declaration, at this time, would deserve to be quoted in full, so striking is the degree to which it reveals Trotsky’s bad faith and the practice of the “supreme sacrifice” Trotsky accuses Eastman of “despicable lying” and implies that he is an agent of international reaction. “Comrade Lenin,” he writes, “did not leave a testament: the nature of his relations with the Party and the nature of the Party itself excludes the possibility of such a testament.” Referring to Lenin’s letter on the reorganization of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection (in which Stalin had the upper hand), Trotsky does not hesitate to declare: “Eastman’s affirmation according to which the C.C. was anxious to conceal, that is to say, not publish, Comrade Lenin’s article on the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection is equally erroneous. The different points of view expressed in the C.C., if it is actually possible to speak of a difference of points of views, in this case, was of absolutely secondary importance.” (21) How could Trotsky speak in this way, when Lenin, on this very point, was making a fundamental attack, and when Trotsky was fully in agreement with him, as he has repeated a hundred times?

On China:

We cannot complete the balance sheet of this politics of conciliation without showing that, even on the theoretical level, Trotsky was confused. I have already shown that he did not regard the struggle against the theory of socialism in one country, when it was “discovered” by Stalin, as a matter of fundamental principle. One must also recognize that Trotsky did not oppose the entry of the Chinese communists into the Kuomintang nor the tactics used by the British communists within the trade-union Anglo-Russian Committee. In each case, he took up the struggle against the Stalinist policy only when it was obviously turning into a “disaster.” (22) I said above that the tactics of the Left Opposition had helped to disarm the revolutionary vanguard in Russia; I should add, in the light of these examples, that it also had a negative effect on the revolutionary vanguard throughout the world. Trotsky said that Stalin appeared to the world one day as a “ready-made dictator”—he forgot to mention his own responsibility in this regard.

Finally, it was in the last stage of the struggle between the Opposition and the Stalinist leadership, as this struggle became more violent, that the capitulations became more radical and more tragic. On two occasions, in October 1926 and in November 1927, the Left Opposition, which then had the support not only of Trotsky but also of Kamenev and Zinoviev, solemnly condemned itself, repudiated its supporters abroad and undertook its own dissolution. Finally, when there was no hope left for it, when Stalin had at his disposal a Congress (the Fifteenth) that obeyed him blindly, the Opposition made a final attempt to return to favour, and drew up a new condemnation of its own activity, namely, the Declaration of the 121. This is a document of the greatest historical importance, because it represents the last public action of the Left Opposition in Russia. The declaration begins by proclaiming that the unity of the Communist Party is the highest principle during the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We find the same terms that Trotsky had used in his speech to the Thirteenth Congress quoted above. The party is regarded as a divine factor in historical development, independently of its content and its line. The declaration thus underlines the danger of a war against the USSR and declares that there is nothing more urgent than to re-establish “the combatant unity of the party.” One may find it extraordinary that the Opposition was seeking above all to preserve the facade of party unity, whereas the gravest dissensions were setting it against the leadership of this party. But the 121 had decided to regard their dissensions with the party as insignificant. Of course, on several occasions, they repeated that they were convinced of the correctness of their views and that they would continue to defend them, as the organizational statutes allowed them to do, after they had dissolved their fraction; but at the same time they proclaimed: “There is no programmatic difference between us and the Party.” (23) And they bitterly denied that they had ever believed that the party or its Central Committee had followed a Thermidorian course. Now, not only had the party completely lost its revolutionary and democratic character in 1927, but it had adopted the perspective of socialism in one country, that is, it had in fact renounced the perspective of world revolution.

Lefort subsequently abandoned his enthusiasm for Lenin (although, as has been documented by Matthew Quest in his recent article for Insurgent Notes, CLR did not). Later still in the 1980s, Lefort lost his enthusiasm for revolution and became one of the theoreticians of post-Marxist civil society.

In any case, however, it is well past the date when we should reconsider Trotsky and the nature of his differences with Stalin.


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Karen,

    Isn’t it a bit fog-inducing to try to split hairs and sort out who was “revolutionary” and who was not in the Bolshevik Central Committee? Things are immediately clarified and make much more sense if one takes the perspective that none of the Bolsheviks were “revolutionary,” but that in fact their main goal, the statist one of taking power, establishing a dictatorship (“of the proletariat” of course), centralizing all functions in their hands, etc., precisely means and can mean nothing but counter-revolution. On day one after the October revolution, they put the brakes on the popular uprising and deliberately put an end to it. Yes, later the Left Opposition made quibbles with Stalin and so forth. But they never changed their fundamental counterrevolutionary idea that the Party and the State should be in control.

    For an anti-statist, what stands out about Trotsky is that he was responsible for massacring the Kronstadt rebels and the revolutionary peasants of the Ukraine. He favored labor camps for dissenters, militarization of labor, strictest discipline in the factories and always increasing productivity. Big surprise that the workers hated him.

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