Letter: John Rose’s review of Leon Trotsky

Issue: 150

Paul Le Blanc

Dear friends, I very much appreciate John Rose’s thoughtful review of my book Leon Trotsky (“Half socialist? Leon Trotsky and the Soviet Union”, in International Socialism 149) including his positive comments and the gratifying endorsement: “Buy this book!”

Yet his review is far from uncritical, and I would like to address a couple of issues touching on the nature (including limitations) of writing a succinct biography, and also to offer a crucial political clarification.

John himself notes the challenge of producing a brief biography of someone like Trotsky that will fit into the Reaktion Books “Critical Lives” series (with its necessarily limited word count)—how to include all that one should know, “how to summarise all the unanswered political questions”. The answer, of course, is that you can’t. Rather you must find a way, a strategy, of conveying the dynamism and complexity in a manner that gives the reader a sense of the reality without pretending to be definitive. The understanding of Trotsky is, in a sense, necessarily “unfinished”.

Also, the particular strategy I adopted was to focus on what Isaac Deutscher called “the Prophet Outcast”—the years of Trotsky’s 1929 to 1940 exile—and to present what happened before that (early years as a revolutionary activist, the Russian Revolution and Civil War, the struggle against the crystallising Stalinist bureaucracy) as flashbacks and as matters Trotsky describes and discusses in his later writings. This strategic decision precluded an adequate discussion of Soviet debates over the Chinese revolutionary events of 1926-7 (which John scolds me for)—and of much else. Also precluded was discussion of the outlook developed by Raya Dunayevskaya and C L R James in 1940 and, differently, by Tony Cliff in the late 1940s: the analysis of the USSR as “state capitalist”. More on this in a moment.

I must say that I am confused by John’s complaint that, in the midst of my discussion of The Revolution Betrayed, I “dispense with Trotsky altogether” by referring to Robert C Tucker’s fine biography of Stalin plus offering my own comments. The way I see it, I interweave more recent scholarship and my own summary of what happened in the USSR (both entirely consistent with Trotsky’s views) with quotes from Trotsky’s work, to convey to readers the nature of the bureaucratic dictatorship that developed under Stalin. Since John himself uncritically employs Tucker’s book in his review, it isn’t clear to me what the problem is.

Perhaps John is, in this passage, gearing up for his central criticism that I
“inexcusably” fail to do justice to the “state capitalist” perspective—which amounts to “Le Blanc’s failure properly and critically to assess Trotsky’s interpretation of Stalinism and the debates this provoked”. I confess that I do not accept the state capitalist analysis, and that I find more helpful Trotsky’s own unfinished analysis: the USSR was in a transitional stage that would result either in a socialist or a capitalist outcome.

This is hardly the last word on the question. I cite two recent and very substantial books that wrestle both with Trotsky’s evolving perspectives and with different Marxist analyses of such questions in my book: Thomas Twiss, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy (Haymarket, 2015), and Marcel van der Linden, Western Marxism and the Soviet Union: A Survey of Critical Theories and Debates Since 1917 (Haymarket, 2009). My primary responsibility was to give some sense of what Trotsky thought, while indicating (with necessary brevity) that there were other ways to view matters. I imagine that if John were writing the book, he would have done it a bit differently (and surely would also have provided a useful account of Trotsky’s life and thought).

Yet there is, in my opinion, a serious misconception that requires clarification. John suggests that for Trotsky (and also Le Blanc) the USSR under Stalin was “half socialist”. This is wrong. At the heart of socialism, for Marxists, are revolutionary-democratic and revolutionary internationalist qualities that the Stalin regime completely and utterly opposed. While Trotsky believed that the USSR was in a transitional period, this did not mean that he considered the regime to be socialist in any way, shape or form (including “half socialist”). Stalinism was the enemy of socialism, the destroyer of socialism. For Trotsky the transition from capitalism to socialism could only be completed by a workers’ revolution that would overthrow the bureaucratic dictatorship, and by the triumph of socialist revolutions throughout more and more (ultimately all) of the world.