Bolshevism and the Arab Revolution

Introduction to the Arab edition of Lenin and Trotsky, what they really stood for

russian-revolutionThe publication of the Arab language edition of Lenin and Trotsky, what they really stood for could scarcely come at a more appropriate time.

I wrote Lenin and Trotsky, what they really stood for back in 1969 together with that great Marxist theoretician, my lifelong friend, comrade and teacher, the late Ted Grant. Since then it has appeared in many different languages, including Spanish, Russian, Greek, Danish, Dutch and Bahasa Indonesian. But the publication of the Arab version is an event of particular importance.

The greatest event in history

From a Marxist point of view, the Bolshevik Revolution was the greatest single event in world history. Why? Because here, for the first time, if we exclude the heroic but tragic episode of the Paris Commune, the masses overthrew the old regime and began the great task of the socialist transformation of society.

Like the Egyptian Revolution, the Russian Revolution had to pass through a series of stages before the masses were able to take power into their own hands. The decisive factor was undoubtedly the presence of a Marxist Party – the Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. Such a party did not drop from heaven. Neither could it be improvised on the spur of the moment. It was built with great difficulty over a period of twenty years, mostly in the harsh conditions of underground work.

The working class needs a party to change society. If there is no revolutionary party, capable of giving a conscious leadership to the revolutionary energy of the class, this energy can be wasted, in the same way that steam is lost if there is no machine that can use its power. On the other hand, each party has its conservative side. In fact, sometimes revolutionaries can be the most conservative of people. This conservatism develops as a consequence of years of routinist work, which is absolutely necessary, but can lead to certain habits and traditions that, in a revolutionary situation, can act like a brake, if they are not overcome by the leadership.

At the decisive moment, when the situation demands a sharp change in the orientation of the party, from routine work to the seizing of power, the old habits can come into conflict with the needs of the new situation. It is precisely in such a context that the role of the leadership is vital.

Lenin and Trotsky

Historical materialism teaches us to look beyond the individual players on the stage of history and look for deeper causes for great historical events. But this does not at all rule out the role of the individuals in history. In given moments the role of a single man or woman can be decisive. We can say with certainty that without the presence of Lenin and Trotsky (particularly the former) in 1917, the October Revolution would never have taken place.

The role of Trotsky both during and after the October Revolution was enormous. Leon Trotsky was universally recognised as second only to Lenin in the Party leadership. In fact, the masses (and also the enemies of the Revolution) habitually referred to the Bolshevik Party as the “Party of Lenin-Trotsky”. Lenin had a very high regard for Trotsky. He said, for example, on November 14, 1917: “Trotsky long ago understood that a union with the Mensheviks was impossible, and since then there has been no better Bolshevik.”

However, individuals can only play such a role when all the other conditions are present. The concatenation of circumstances in 1917 enabled Lenin and Trotsky to play a decisive role. But the same men had been present for more than two decades before and were not able to play the same role. In the same way, when the Revolution ebbed, despite their colossal personal ability, Lenin and Trotsky were not able to prevent the bureaucratic degeneration of the Revolution. This was caused by objective forces against which even the greatest leaders were powerless.

Marx explained long ago that in any society where want is general, “all the old crap revives.” It was these conditions that gave rise to Bureaucracy – a thick layer of officials and careerists who elbowed the workers to one side and grabbed privileged positions in the State and in industry. Lenin warned repeatedly against the dangers of Bureaucracy – not only in the State but in the Party itself.   

In October 1917 Lenin and Trotsky were well aware that the material conditions for building socialism were absent in Russia. However, they also knew that these conditions existed in countries like Germany. They never saw the Russian Revolution as a self-contained act, but as the starting-point of the European and world revolution. It had an enormous impact on the European working class.

The October Revolution in Russia led swiftly to the November revolution in Germany in 1918. This was followed by a series of revolutionary upheavals in that country which only terminated in 1923. One year later, in 1919, there was a revolution in Hungary. In the same year a Soviet Republic was briefly declared in Bavaria. There were also revolutionary upheavals in Britain, France, Italy, Bulgaria, Estonia and other countries.

The revolutionary movement of the European working class was strong enough to prevent military intervention against Soviet Russia but was paralysed by the reformist leadership. But the failure of the Revolution in Europe meant that the Russian Revolution was isolated under conditions of the most frightful backwardness. Moreover, the young Soviet Republic was invaded by 21 foreign armies of intervention. Industry and agriculture were destroyed. In one year alone (1920) six million people starved to death in Soviet Russia.

The ascent of the bureaucracy was rooted in objective conditions of material and cultural backwardness. Stalin placed himself at the head of this privileged caste of bureaucrats. In his last letter, written from his death bed, Lenin demanded the removal of Stalin. But he died before he could achieve his objective. In 1926 at a meeting of the United Opposition, Lenin’s widow Krupskaya said: “If Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] were alive today he would be in one of Stalin’s prisons.”

Trotsky versus Stalin

Far from being responsible for the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky collaborated in the struggle against Stalin, who Lenin, in his Testament insisted the Party remove from his post as General Secretary because he had “accumulated enormous power in his hands” and “I am not sure he knows how to use it”. In his last desperate battle against Stalin and the bureaucracy, Lenin could only turn to one man in the entire leadership – Trotsky.

The real reason for the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution was not some “original sin” of Bolshevism, but the isolation of the Revolution in conditions of frightful material and cultural backwardness. This, in turn, was the result of the betrayal of the leaders of European Social Democracy.

After Lenin’s death in 1924, Trotsky attempted to carry on Lenin’s struggle against Stalin and the Bureaucracy. But he was fighting a losing battle. After years of War, Revolution and Civil War, the Russian workers were exhausted. On the other hand, the millions of privileged Bureaucrats were ever more confident. They felt that the reins of power were firmly in their grip. Only a victory of the Revolution in Germany or China could have saved the situation. But the bad policies of Stalin and his supporters led to one defeat after another.

Expelled from the Communist Party of Russia in 1927 as the result of the machinations of Stalin and his bureaucratic apparatus, Trotsky was later sent into exile (1929) in far-off Turkey. By such bureaucratic means Stalin and his henchmen thought they would silence the leader of the Bolshevik-Leninists (the Left Opposition). But they were mistaken.

Trotsky would not be silenced. From his exile on the island of Prinkipo, he organized the counter attack of the genuine forces of Bolshevism-Leninism. He set up the International Left Opposition, which began to regroup all those who remained loyal to the ideas of Lenin, the Bolshevik Party and October. Though formally expelled from the ranks of the Communist Parties and the Communist International (Comintern), Trotsky and his followers still considered themselves to be part of the Communist movement, fighting for readmission and for the reform of the Communist Parties, the Communist International and the USSR.

Incapable of answering Trotsky’s political arguments, Stalin and the bureaucracy answered with acts of repression. The Left Opposition in Russia was suppressed by force and its members sacked from their jobs, harassed, and later arrested and imprisoned.

The Revolution survived, but experienced a terrible bureaucratic deformation. The nationalized planned economy permitted the USSR to make tremendous strides forward, transforming a formally backward economy into an advanced industrialised nation with a cultured population. It was this that permitted the USSR to stand against Hitler’s armies in the Second World War and defeat them practically single-handed.

But the remarkable economic successes of the USSR did not mean, as the Stalinists boasted, that “socialism had been built”. On the contrary, under the rule of a privileged bureaucratic caste, the USSR was moving away from socialism. In the end, the bureaucracy completely undermined the nationalized planned economy and prepared the way for capitalist restoration. As early as 1936 Trotsky warned, in The Revolution Betrayed, that the bureaucracy would not be satisfied with its legal and illegal privileges but would strive to transform itself into the proprietors of the means of production through a capitalist counterrevolution. Although with a delay of decades, this is exactly what happened. Before the Second World War, Trotsky warned:

“That socialisation of the capitalist-created means of production is of tremendous economic benefit is today demonstrable not only in theory but also by the experiment of the U.S.S.R., notwithstanding the limitations of that experiment. True, capitalistic reactionaries, not without artifice, use Stalin’s regime as a scarecrow against the ideas of socialism. As a matter of fact, Marx never said that socialism could be achieved in a single country, and moreover, a backward country. The continuing privations of the masses in the U.S.S.R., the omnipotence of the privileged caste, which has lifted itself above the nation and its misery, finally, the rampant club-law of the bureaucrats are not consequences of the socialist method of economy but of the isolation and backwardness of the U.S.S.R. caught in the ring of capitalist encirclement. The wonder is that under such exceptionally unfavourable conditions planned economy has managed to demonstrate its insuperable benefits.” (L. Trotsky, Introduction to The Living Thoughts of Karl Marx)

Stalin’s Terror

In all the annals of history we will scarcely find a similar case when all the resources of a vast state apparatus were mobilized to destroy one man. In vain Trotsky strove to find a place of exile. All the doors of the so-called Western democracies were firmly shut against him, in what the French surrealist poet Andre Breton described as “the planet without a visa”.

From his exile in Mexico, Trotsky witnessed the systematic murder of all of his friends, comrades and collaborators. In his monstrous Purge Trials, Stalin framed, tortured and murdered all the leaders of Lenin’s Party. The Purges were, as Trotsky said, a one-sided civil war of Stalin and the Bureaucracy against the Bolshevik Party.  

Stalin took his revenge against Trotsky’s family. In 1932, in an act of personal vindictiveness, Stalin deprived Trotsky and all members of his family of Soviet citizenship. Trotsky’s daughter Zinaida, who had gone to Prinkipo to be with her father together with her young son Seva, was now prevented from returning to the Soviet Union, and therefore cut off from her husband and daughter, committed suicide in Berlin the following year. This was the start of a systematic persecution that involved the murder of all of Trotsky’s children, friends and comrades.

In the midst of the most frightful betrayals, defeats, demoralization and apostasy, Trotsky raised a clean banner, defended the genuine traditions of Leninism, October and the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky therefore succeeded in his aim. That was no small achievement! Who now remembers the writings of Zinoviev and Kamenev? But in the writings of Leon Trotsky we have a priceless heritage that retains all its importance, relevance and vitality, especially after the collapse of the USSR – the inevitable consequence of the crimes of Stalinism. They represent the authentic banner of Bolshevism and the October Revolution – the only hope for the future of humanity.

Trotsky was fighting to establish the ideas, programme and tradition for the future generations of Communists in the USSR and internationally. He was the only one to do so, despite the most frightful persecution. Stalin ordered the murder of Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s son, in Paris. He ordered the arrest of Sergei, Trotsky’s other son, who was not involved in politics and had stayed behind in the Soviet Union. He was imprisoned and shot. Finally Stalin got what he so earnestly desired – the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico, in August 1940.

Ideological counteroffensive

Today the ideas of Leon Trotsky are more relevant than ever before. They find an ever-growing echo in the ranks of the workers’ movement in all countries. Even in the ranks of the Communist Parties, where previously the ideas of Trotsky were reviled, the rank and file is looking to them with growing interest and sympathy as the only real Marxist explanation of the degeneration and collapse of the USSR. In the Havana Book Fair in Cuba the works of Trotsky in Spanish are sold in considerable quantities to an eager public that had not had the opportunity to read them before.

Of course, the success of revolutionary Marxism is not welcomed by everybody. The reformists and bureaucrats fear this as the Devil fears holy water. This also applies (to some extent even more so) to certain “Lefts”, who hide behind radical phrases but in fact represent only the left flank of a conservative bureaucratic trend in the workers’ movement. Their hatred of “Trotskyism” is partly driven by fear for their own positions, jobs and salaries, and partly by their inability to answer the Marxist tendency with political arguments. As always, a person with confused ideas hates a person with clear ideas.

In our book, Ted and I showed conclusively how Lenin and Trotsky, proceeding by different routes, eventually arrive at the same conclusions. We allowed Lenin and Trotsky to speak for themselves, reproducing lengthy quotes from their works. This method does not necessarily make for easy reading, but it has the undoubted merit of allowing the unprejudiced reader to form his or her own judgment on their ideas and the true relation between them. We pointed out that the differences between Lenin and Trotsky before 1917 had been greatly exaggerated by the Stalinists and that Lenin’s position on the nature of the Russian Revolution was far closer to that of Trotsky than the Mensheviks and that in 1917 he adopted a position which was practically identical to Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution. From that point on, in the words of Lenin, there was “no better Bolshevik than Trotsky.”

Since the fall of the Soviet Union there has been an avalanche of books which claim to “expose” the October Revolution and its most important leaders, Lenin and Trotsky. The purpose of this is clear: to discredit the Bolshevik revolution in the eyes of the new generation. The main trick is to establish a causal link between Bolshevism and Stalinism. But this is a monstrous falsehood. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the history of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution will know that the Bolshevik Party was the most democratic party that ever existed and that the October Revolution was the most democratic revolution in history, in which the masses were the principal protagonists.

Those who argue that Bolshevism and Stalinism are “not antipodes but twins” must explain how it came about that, in order to consolidate his bureaucratic dictatorship, Stalin first had to destroy Lenin’s party and physically exterminate Lenin’s Old Guard.

But it is not only the bourgeoisie and its ideological spokesmen and women (including the right wing Social Democrats and some so-called Left Socialists) who have a vested interest in falsely identifying Bolshevism and Stalinism. The Stalinists for decades maintained this grotesque distortion and it was they who invented the lie of “Trotskyism” as a separate political tendency, different from, and hostile to, Leninism. It was to demolish this falsehood that Ted Grant and I wrote Lenin and Trotsky, what they really stood for back in 1969.

The end of history?

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the bureaucratic Stalinist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe provoked a wave of euphoria in the West. The demise of Stalinism was heralded as the “end of Socialism.” The final victory of the “free market” was trumpeted from the pages of learned journals from Tokyo to New York. The strategists of capital were exultant. Francis Fukuyama even went so far as to proclaim the “end of history.” Henceforth, the class war would be no more. Everything would be for the best in the best of all capitalist worlds. But only a few years later all these dreams of the bourgeoisie and the reformists lie in ashes.

On the threshold of the twenty-first century, the very existence of the human race is threatened by the ravishing of the planet in the name of profit; mass unemployment, which was confidently asserted to be a thing of the past, has reappeared in all the advanced countries of capitalism, not to speak of the nightmare of poverty, ignorance, wars and epidemics which constantly afflict two thirds of humanity in the so-called “Third World.” There is war after war and terrorism is spreading like a dark stain all over the planet. On all sides there is pessimism and a deep sense of foreboding about the future, mingled with irrational and mystical tendencies.

The sickness of the 21st century is not without historical precedent. We can observe the same symptoms in every period of decline, when a given socio-economic system has exhausted its potential and become a brake on human development. Capitalism has long ago reached its limits. It is no longer capable of developing the means of production as it once did. It is no longer capable of offering meaningful reforms. In fact, it is no longer able to tolerate the continuation of the reforms of the past that provided at least some of the elements of a semi-civilized existence in the developed capitalist countries.

But now all the gains so painfully won by the working class in the past are under threat. But the workers and youth will not surrender their conquests without a fight. The stage is set for an unprecedented explosion of the class struggle. And in the underdeveloped countries of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the impasse of capitalism, in the words of Lenin, means horror without end.

The “two stage theory”

It is ironical that precisely at a time when capitalism is in the deepest crisis in 200 years, the Social Democrats have abandoned socialism and are clinging to the shirt-tails of the bourgeoisie. Things are even worse with the former “Communists” (that is, Stalinists) who have thrown overboard the ideas of Lenin and Marxism and completely subordinated themselves to the bourgeoisie.

Stalinism has played the worst role in the Middle East. Following in the footsteps of the Russian Mensheviks, they argued that the society was not ready for socialism in backward ex-colonial countries, and under no circumstances should the proletariat try to take power into its own hands. They tried to build a Chinese Wall between the bourgeois-democratic and socialist revolution. This reactionary theory postponed the socialist revolution to a far distant future and subordinated the working class to the “progressive” bourgeoisie. This was the exact antithesis of what Lenin had argued, and the exact opposite of what happened in Russia in 1917.

Stalin’s disastrous and anti-Leninist theory of the “two stages” prevented the workers from taking power in Iraq and Sudan. In Bagdad in 1958 the Iraqi Communist Party could hold a rally of a million people. They could have taken power, but instead insisted that the workers must support the bourgeois democrats and progressive army officers. As a result the Party was crushed. The same thing happened in Sudan a few years later. The Menshevik-Stalinist “two stage” theory led to one bloody defeat after another.

The ex-Stalinists in particular have been punished by history for their past crimes. They have moved sharply to the right, especially after the collapse of the USSR and are now not even the shadow of their former selves. They are deeply sceptical about socialism and have no faith whatsoever in the working class. The old Stalinists were at least a caricature of the genuine article. Now they are only a pale imitation of reformism. Consequently, at a time when capitalism is in a deep crisis, when the ideas of communism ought to get a big audience, they have proved impotent to reach the most radicalised layers of the workers and youth. In many countries they have disappeared altogether.

Collapse of Stalinism

This is not the place to deal in depth with the reasons for the collapse of Stalinism. That has been done elsewhere (See Ted Grant: Russia, from Revolution to Counterrevolution). Suffice it to say that what failed in the USSR was not socialism, as understood by Marx and Lenin, but Stalinism, a monstrous bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature of socialism. Stalinism and socialism (or communism), so far from being identical, as the bourgeois enemies of socialism argue, are mutually exclusive. The regimes in the USSR and its Eastern European satellites in many ways were the opposite of socialism. They had nothing whatsoever to do with the regime of workers’ democracy (soviet democracy) established by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

As Trotsky explained, a nationalized planned economy needs democracy, as the human body requires oxygen. Without the democratic control and administration of the working class, a regime of nationalization and planning would inevitably seize up at a certain point, especially in a modern, sophisticated and complex economy. This fact is graphically reflected in the falling rate of growth of the Soviet economy since the early 1970s, after the unprecedented successes of the planned economy in the earlier period.

The fall of Stalinism came as no surprise to the Marxists, who had predicted it in advance. Indeed, Leon Trotsky had already analyzed the bureaucratic regime in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and, using the Marxist method, explained the inevitability of its collapse. However, what the Western critics of Marxism do not want to publicize is that the movement in the direction of a capitalist market economy in the former Soviet Union, far from improving the situation, has caused an unmitigated social and economic disaster.

Under the planned economy, the people of the Soviet Union enjoyed a level of life expectancy, health care and education on a level with the most developed capitalist countries, or in advance of them. The attempt to impose a “market economy” on the peoples of the former Soviet Union has been a finished recipe for destroying all the gains of the past seventy years, driving down living standards and plunging society as a whole into an abyss.

The effects on the population, which has rapidly been reduced to absolute misery, can best be shown in the sudden deterioration of life expectancy. The great majority of the population live in conditions of extreme misery, while a handful of gangsters have enriched themselves. Of course, the apologists of capital assure us that all this will be temporary, that “in the long run” the market will create the conditions for prosperity. To which we can answer in the words of Keynes: “In the long run, we’re all dead.”

The collapse of Stalinism was not the end of history, but only the first act in a drama, which has now passed on to the second and even more dramatic act – the general crisis of world capitalism. The unprecedented ideological offensive against the ideas of Marxism has now reached its limits. In society as in classical mechanics it is true that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And a general reaction against capitalist barbarism has begun. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are a conclusive proof of this.

The Revolution is not yet finished

The working class is now a decisive majority in Turkey and Egypt and in many other countries it plays a key role in the economy and society. It played a decisive role in the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak. But the major task has yet to be accomplished. The proletariat can only lead society out of this terrible impasse by taking power into its own hands. The changed balance of class forces rules out a rapid denouement. The present situation can last for years with ebbs and flows.

The movement will take place in a series of waves, as in Spain, where the Revolution, which really began in 1930 with a wave of strikes and demonstrations even before the fall of the Monarchy in 1931. In a revolutionary period like this, all such lulls and defeats are merely the prelude to new explosions, which will put all past movements in the shade. The Spanish Revolution passed through a whole series of stages, before it was finally defeated in the May Days of 1937 in Barcelona. In these seven years there were periods of great revolutionary advances, such as in 1931 with the declaration of the Monarchy, but also periods of despair and disillusionment, such as 1933-34. There were terrible defeats like the defeat of the Asturian Commune in 1934, and even black reaction, as in the Bienio Negro (Two Black years) of 1933-5.

Not only in Egypt and Tunisia but also in Europe a similar process is taking place everywhere at a slower or faster pace and at a greater or lesser intensity. All over the world a new generation is beginning to move into action. It is looking for a banner, a programme and an idea. It is repelled by the class collaboration policies of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the Social Democratic leaders and is increasingly revolutionary in outlook.

The Revolutions in Tunisia and   Egypt were a major turning point in world history. Like a heavy boulder thrown into a lake they are making waves. They have shaken the Middle East and the reverberations are being felt all over the world. Workers and young people everywhere were inspired by the tremendous courage and determination of people fighting with bare hands to overthrow the old oppressive regime.

To this new generation the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky offer a guide and compass that they will need in order to find their way to the road that leads to socialism – the revolutionary road. It is to this new generation of fighters, and above all to the comrades of, that I dedicate the Arab language translation of this book.

The psychological effects of this cannot be underestimated. For many, especially in the advanced capitalist countries, the idea of revolution appeared as something abstract and remote. Now the events that have unfolded before their eyes on television show that revolution is not just possible but necessary.

Yet two and a half years later, not one of the aims of the Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt has been gained. Despite all the heroism of the masses, despite all their superhuman efforts, the old exploiters remain in place and the masses lack what they need: work, food and housing. What has so far prevented the masses from taking power is the lack of adequate organization and leadership. This is most clearly shown in the case of Egypt.

A mighty movement of 17 million people drove the counterrevolutionary Muslim Brotherhood from power last June. The June Revolution showed both the strong points and the limits of its purely spontaneous (i.e. unorganized) nature. The Revolution was strong enough to achieve the immediate objective: the overthrow of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. But it was not strong enough to prevent the fruits of its victory being stolen by the generals and the bourgeoisie.

The Arab Revolution has begun, but it is not yet finished. Seeking a way out of the crisis, the workers will test one party and leader after another in a desperate attempt to find a way out of the crisis. They discard one after another. The pendulum swings to the left and the right. The revolutionary masses will have to pass through another hard school in order to raise themselves to the level that is necessary to change the course of history.

Fortunately, Revolution enables people to learn fast. If two years ago there had existed in Egypt the equivalent of the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky, even with just the 8,000 members that it had in February 1917, the whole situation would be entirely different. But such a party did not exist. It will have to be built in the heat of events. One thing is very clear. On a capitalist basis there can be no solution for the workers and peasants of the Middle East. The Arab Revolution will triumph as a socialist revolution, or it will not triumph at all.

London, 15 October 2013

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