Trotsky and the New Stalinism: Introduction by John Rudge

Issue: 160

A new introduction to Chris Harman’s 1967 article “Trotsky and the New Stalinism”, published in issue 160.

2018 is certainly a year of important anniversaries.1 While the British Establishment is remembering a sanitised version of the end of the First World War in 1918, we on the left are remembering the heady days of revolt of 1968. There is, however, a most unexpected event from 50 years ago that we can also now celebrate. The discovery of a long-lost political article by Chris Harman.2

In the July-August 1967 issue of New Left Review (NLR), Nicolas Krassó had published a substantial essay titled “Trotsky’s Marxism”. The essay kicked off a significant debate that lasted throughout 1968 and beyond. The strange thing about the debate was that there did not seem to be any contemporary input from the International Socialism (IS) tradition—a slightly odd situation bearing in mind that 1968 was the year that IS “took off” and became the leading force on the non-Stalinist left.

It has, however, long been suspected that Harman had attempted to contribute to this debate from the IS perspective. Ian Birchall can remember being told by Harman that he had submitted an article to NLR but that it was never published.3 Ian records in his 1980 article “The Autonomy of Theory: A Short History of the New Left Review” that: “a contribution [to the “Trotsky’s Marxism” debate] by Chris Harman, putting the “state capitalist” point of view, was rejected for publication”.4

When asked by Sebastian Budgen, neither Robin Blackburn nor Tariq Ali, two editorial board members of NLR, could remember the Harman contribution—hardly surprising after 50 years. However Perry Anderson, the editor of NLR at the time of the Krassó debate, advised Sebastian that the evidence suggested Birchall was right, and Harman did indeed submit a piece to NLR. Anderson believes that what could have happened is that NLR delayed publishing it because there was a project of making a small book out of the debate, but then the events of 1968 overtook the plans.

Since 1967 it has been assumed that Harman’s article was lost and would never see the light of day. The good news is that I have discovered what appears to be a copy.5

Given the time that has elapsed since Harman wrote his article it seems appropriate to re-set the scene. What follows therefore is a few words about Nicolas Krassó and the NLR. I will give a short overview of his “Trotsky’s Marxism” essay, but I do not intend to delve deeply into the debate that followed its publication—those who are interested can investigate and make up their own minds. I will briefly introduce Harman’s newly-discovered contribution, at the same time including some comments relating to Krassó from other writers in the IS tradition.

I should make it crystal clear that I am neither attempting to re-open the “Trotsky’s Marxism” debate nor to critique Krassó or any other contributor. My sole purpose is to give context to the “new” Harman article that I am presenting.

Nicolas Krassó

Nicolas Krassó (1930-86) was a Hungarian Marxist and some-time student of Georg Lukács. He first joined a Hungarian Communist Party youth cell in 1945 and was a supporter of reform in the party. He played a noteworthy role in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution as a strong advocate of the Workers’ Councils that sprung up in Budapest and elsewhere. The story of his own role in 1956 is contained in Hungary 1956: A Participant’s Account, an interview published in Tariq Ali’s book The Stalinist Legacy.6 Just as an aside, Krassó in Hungary in 1956, gets a mention in IS member Peter Sedgwick’s “Farewell, Grosvenor Square”.7 At the defeat of the revolution Krassó fled Hungary, eventually arriving in Britain where he continued with his political activity and writing and teaching on Hungary and other matters.

In the context of this particular piece of research, Krassó wrote an especially salient article to mark the second anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. Published in Britain in the weekly Tribune newspaper of 24 October 1958, it is of interest because it was reproduced in the Trotskyist newspaper of the American SWP The Militant.8 Not only was it reproduced in their issue of 8 December 1958, but it was deemed sufficiently relevant to have its own editorial comment—a relatively favourable comment at that.

Krassó ends this article as follows:

To arrest catastrophe, we must set against the half-conscious alliance of Eastern and Western reaction a fully conscious unity of radical forces. While the power elites of the two blocs are preparing to destroy the world under the cover of empty slogans, the duty of putting forward constructive solutions falls on us—the opposition. The European left faces its greatest tasks. The fate of mankind may depend on how we tackle them.

The American SWP ends its editorial on Krassó’s article thus:

While we do not share many of Krassó’s conclusions, we uphold the right of East European nations to pull out of the Warsaw Pact as is championed in Krassó’s article. The truth is that the Soviet bureaucracy with its tyrannical methods of rule in defense of its economic privileges is incapable of rallying the East European working people for the struggle to repel American imperialism. What the working people in Eastern Europe need above all is the chance to rule themselves and to determine on the basis of their own experience what the fundamental issues are in the Cold War and what constitutes the best program for the promotion of socialism and of world peace. The result, as Krassó indicates, would be pleasing to neither Washington nor the Soviet bureaucracy. It would, however, advance the cause of the international working class and of world socialism.

Krassó wrote his first article for the NLR in 1962, coincidentally, a review of Sedgwick’s edition of Victor Serge’s Memoirs. He joined its editorial committee in 1965. But it was for his article on “Trotsky’s Marxism” and the debate it engendered that he became best known.9

He died in January 1986 following a fire at his home the previous November. An obituary written by Blackburn appeared in NLR number 155.10 The obituary concludes with what, apparently, was Krassó’s favourite epitaph, by the Hungarian poet Attila József:

I’ve always tried to stand my ground
against a whirlwind.
I have trespassed not
against others as they against
me. Ridiculous.

New Left Review

The NLR really needs little introduction. It has been in continuous production since 1960—the same year that International Socialism started. Whereas for almost all of its existence the IS journal has been attached to a political organisation (the IS, now the SWP), the NLR has had no such link. Rather than indulge in an attempt to precis the history of NLR I will introduce the interested reader to two quite different histories.

The NLR’s own “Brief History of New Left Review 1960-2010” appears on their website.11 Another history of the NLR, “The Autonomy of Theory: A Short History of New Left Review, was published in International Socialism by Birchall. Ian introduces his history by writing:

The aim of this article is not to compare the output of NLR and IS (however favourable to us a comparison of the files of the two journals would be). It is to assess NLR in terms of its own theoretical pretensions. In order to do so I have divided the article into two sections. First comes a historical sketch of the main phases of NLR’s development, in relation to the changing priorities of the situation; then follows a survey of its contribution to the main problems facing socialist theory today.12

“Trotsky’s Marxism”

There is no disputing that Krassó’s essay was of considerable importance. This has long been recognised—the NLR’s own above-mentioned history states:

The Review also now broached for the first time classical issues of the international revolutionary movement of this century, with an organised debate between Communist, Trotskyist and Lukácsian participants over the role of Trotsky in the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. This debate was initiated by Nicolas Krassó, an editor of the Review who had been a protagonist of the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

Neil Davidson, writing in 2004, called it the NLR’s “first serious consideration of Trotsky’s work”.13

What of the essay itself? Krassó helpfully defines its purpose at the outset. He writes:

The aim of this essay is to approach such a problem—how should we judge Trotsky as a Marxist? This means comparing him with Lenin (rather than with Stalin) and trying to see what is the specific unity of his theoretical writings and his practice as a politician. For this purpose, Trotsky’s life falls into four distinct phases: 1879-1917, 1917-21, 1921-29 and 1929-40. It will be the thesis of this essay that all four periods are best understood in the framework of a single problem: Trotsky’s relation to the party as the revolutionary organisation of the proletariat, and its latent theoretical foundations. This focus, it will be argued, illuminates all the basic characteristics (vices and virtues) of Trotsky’s thought as a Marxist, and explains the vicissitudes of his political career.14

He goes on to look at these “four distinct phases” of Trotsky’s life (see table 1) in some detail—sometimes drawing out the “virtues” but, it has to be said, more generally concentrating on the “vices”.

From the first “distinct phase” of Trotsky’s life (1879-1917) is deduced the cardinal sin of “sociologism”. By this Krassó means a theoretical deviation from Marxism where:

Social classes…are extracted from the complex historical totality and hypostasised in an idealist fashion as the demiurges of any given political situation. Class struggle becomes the immediate, internal “truth” of any political event, and mass forces become the exclusive historical agents. Economism naturally leads to passivity and tailism; sociologism, on the contrary, tends to lead to voluntarism… In his [Trotsky’s] writings, mass forces are presented as constantly dominant in society, without any political organisations or institutions intervening as necessary and permanent levels of the social formation. Lenin’s Marxism, by contrast, is defined by the notion of a complex totality, in which all levels—economic, social, political and ideological—are always operational, and there is a permutation of the main locus of contradictions between them. Trotsky’s extrapolation of mass forces from this complex tier of levels was the ultimate source of his theoretical mistakes, both before and after the revolution.15

How helpful the concept of “sociologism” is I question. It seems unnecessarily obtuse to a non-academic like myself. Certainly, over the years a number of writers have given their personal interpretation of Krassó’s term. Writing in the debate, Ernest Mandel (following on from Krassó) takes “sociologism” to mean Trotsky’s “constant underestimation of the autonomous role of political institutions”.16 Birchall writes: “Krasso argued that Trotsky suffered from the vice of ‘sociologism’ (an overemphasis on the importance of social classes)”.17 While John Molyneux says:

It appears that by “sociologism” Krassó means the basic Marxist enterprise of understanding political conflicts in terms of the class struggle. This is especially so as he attempts to interpret the struggle inside the CPSU in the 1920’s in terms of autonomous power politics rather than as an expression of different class forces—an interpretation obviously favourable to Stalin. This point is taken up in Ernest Mandel’s “Trotsky’s Marxism: An Anti-Critique”, in New Left Review 47.18

I think this all proves that writing in plain English, as Harman does, has its advantages!

Trotsky’s vices deduced from the second “distinct phase” (1917-21) are voluntarism and administrativism. As Krassó writes: “the voluntarist is in his element haranguing crowds or dispatching troops, but these roles should not be confused with the ability to lead a revolutionary party”. And:

By 1921, the Civil War was won. With victory, the Bolshevik party had to switch its whole orientation from military to economic problems. Reconstruction and reorganisation of the Soviet economy was now its main strategic objective. Trotsky’s adaptation to the new situation revealed how consistent his whole political practice was in this phase. He simply proposed the imposition of military solutions on economic problems—calling for an intensified War Communism and the introduction of forced labour. This extraordinary episode was not just a parenthesis or aberration in his career. It had profound theoretical and practical sources in his past. His role as People’s Commissar for War predisposed him to an economic policy that was conceived as a straightforward military mobilisation: he was merely extending his previous practice in advocating it. At the same time his propensity for a “command” solution undoubtedly reflected his incomprehension of the specific role of the party and his consequent tendency to seek political solutions at the level of the state.19

Krassó describes the third “distinct phase” (1921-9) as: “the central phase of Trotsky’s life. A few years saw events that were decisive for world history for decades to come”.20 He divides consideration of the period into two levels: that of the political-tactical struggle and that of the ideological and strategic struggle. According to Krassó, in the political-tactical struggle Trotsky was isolated from the other old Bolsheviks and he made “mistake after mistake”. Apparently, Trotsky’s: “constant underestimation of the autonomous power of political institutions, and his tendency to collapse these back into the mass forces that were allegedly their “social base”, were his nemesis”.21

The two great ideological disputes identified by Krassó are “Socialism in One Country versus Permanent Revolution” and “Collectivisation and Industrialisation”. On the first of these Krassó contends that after Lenin’s death: “Stalin effectively wrote off the possibility of international revolutions, and made the construction of socialism in one country the exclusive task—both necessary and possible—of the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky declared that the October Revolution was doomed unless international revolutions came to its aid, and predicted that these revolutions were certain to occur”.22

Krassó comes down firmly on the side of Stalin.

On the second matter, collectivisation and industrialisation, Krassó is happy to say that Trotsky was right as regards the administrative policy, although you know there is going to be a “but”, so here it is:

An economic strategy for the USSR required more than an administrative decision by the Soviet state. Its implementation required a correct political policy by the party towards the different social classes… Here Trotsky had no coherent perspective to provide. His lack of grasp of party problems made this virtually inevitable. The result was that the actual implementation of his policies was enacted—and denatured—by Stalin. After defeating Trotsky and the Left, Stalin turned against the Right and put the Opposition’s economic policy into practice. But he did so with a crudity and violence that precipitated a permanent agrarian crisis, despite all the tremendous gains of the Five Year Plans.23

When it comes to the final “distinct phase” of Trotsky’s life (1929-1940) he is cast as a tragic figure: “completely ineffective—the leader of an imaginary political movement”. Even his magnificent writings in this period are given the “curate’s egg treatment”. The History of the Russian Revolution is, for Krassó, where Trotsky’s sociologism “finds its most authentic and powerful expression” although his essays on Germany: “stand out as the only Marxist writings of these years to predict the catastrophic consequences of Nazism and the folly of the political policies of the Third Period of the Comintern toward it”.24

In summing up Krassó tells us that:

In practical political struggle, before and after the revolution, his [Trotsky’s] underestimation of the specific efficacy of political institutions led him into error after error… Such was Trotsky’s Marxism. It forms a consistent and characteristic unity, from his early youth to his old age. Trotsky should be studied today, along with Georgi Plekhanov, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Nikolai Bukharin and Stalin, because the history of Marxism has never been reconstituted in the West. Only when it is, will the stature of Lenin, the one great Marxist of that epoch, be available.25

The “Great Debate”

As one would have expected (and no doubt as was intended by the NLR) Krassó’s essay provoked a tremendous amount of interest and a vigorous debate. Much of this was contained within the pages of the NLR and this is a disadvantage for the interested reader of today. That material is not freely available online so a subscription to NLR or library loan is required. The full debate was, however, wider than the contributions appearing in the NLR and I have tried to capture this in fuller detail in table 2.

The debate was not just across political organisations; it was also across the globe. The rather immodest title The Great Debate comes from the title of the book published in the United States in 1972. The first three contributions to the debate from Krassó and Mandel (in NLR 44, 47 and 48) were also published in an Australian Left Review Discussion Pamphlet in June 1968. David Horowitz, the editor of Ramparts Magazine, wrote the introduction to the US published book and I think he was correct when he said of the debate in NLR: “It represents the first time in the English-speaking world (and perhaps anywhere) that a Marxist, but non-Trotskyist, journal opened its pages to a serious consideration of Trotsky’s ideas. It remains to this day, moreover, the only extended polemic on these questions. Happily, moreover, as a polemic it is carried out on a very high level”.26

Harman’s Contribution—“Trotsky and the New Stalinism”

Harman’s review of Krassó’s essay is a 9-foolscap page typescript document. The typescript I own has many manual alterations notated on it, all of which are transcribed into the version appearing here. Due to the number of these manual changes on the typescript I am in no position to confirm that this was, in fact, the final version submitted to NLR. I have refrained from the temptation to edit some of the quirkiness, for example the over-use of brackets, from the document and I produce it here “warts and all”. I have corrected a handful of typing errors and International Socialism’s editors have made very minor changes to conform to the journal’s house style.

However, before I turn my attention to Harman’s piece I do want to tie up one loose end. I did say earlier that it was strange that there was no contemporary IS input to the Krassó debate. But that does not mean there was no contemporary IS comment. There was. In a memorable article on the death of Trotsky’s biographer Isaac Deutscher, which occurred at this same time, Sedgwick had this to say regarding Krassó’s essay:

Despite its many inspired insights into the “sociologism” of Trotsky’s thought, one is left with a curious sense of indecency after reading Krassó’s catalogue of Trotskyist errors. Krassó, it seems, objects to Trotsky because he failed: “The superiority of Stalin’s perspective over Trotsky’s is undeniable…utterly failed to see that Stalin was determined to evict him from the party…his efforts to forge political organisations—a Fourth International—were destined to failure…how lost and disoriented he was in the unfamiliar context of the West”. Nicolas Krassó, as many readers will know, was an active militant in the Hungarian Revolution; he personally convened the first meeting of the Central Workers’ Council of Budapest, and had to flee his homeland after the Russian tanks and secret police re-established control. Has Krassó perhaps been guilty of the “underestimation of the specific efficacy of political institutions”? Would he admit the “superiority” of a Kadar because the latter won? Yet you choose to live in London, Nicolas.27

A typically salient and cutting response from the IS tradition if ever there was one.

I feel certain that Harman’s review was written in the latter part of 1967, certainly before the publication of Mandel’s first reply to Krassó in the January-February 1968 issue of NLR. I can be equally certain that Chris will have had no access to Mandel’s piece, or indeed any of the others in the debate, while he was writing his own. His piece is therefore not influenced by the broader debate and needs to be seen as a reply to the original Krassó essay only.

As regards Harman’s contribution, the best thing to do is to start at its beginning—the title. What precisely did Harman mean by choosing “Trotsky and the New Stalinism”? Clearly, in part Chris is making the point that: “a tendency for veiled apologies for Stalin’s historical role has become increasingly prevalent of late in the New Left Review (NLR)”. He is also protesting a tendency for: “the rewriting of history begun by Stalinism”.28

Actually though, what Chris probably meant most, is something that Mandel expressed very well in his first contribution to the debate. Mandel wrote:

Historically, the very fact that Stalin has been thrown down from his pedestal, and that many accusations launched against him by Trotsky are now accepted as correct, represents a tremendous historical vindication of the man whom Stalin’s agent murdered on August 20th, 1940 in Coyoacán.

Anyone who remains unengaged in the struggle to bring about the final triumph of Trotsky’s programme—his complete political vindication—will therefore tend to rationalise his abstention by looking for faults, mistakes and weaknesses in that programme. By doing so, he cannot repeat the gross distortions and falsifications of Stalinist henchmen of the 1930s, the 1940s and the early 1950s: that Trotsky was a “counter-revolutionary” and an “agent of imperialism”; that he wanted to, or objectively tended to, restore capitalism in the USSR. He has thus to fall back on the arguments which the more sophisticated and cleverer opponents of Trotsky advanced against him during the 1920s: that he was essentially a “non-Bolshevik”, a “left social-democrat”, who had not understood the peculiarities of Russia, the finesse of Lenin’s theory of organisation, or the complex dialectics of successful proletarian class struggle, in the West and the East. This is exactly what Krassó is doing today.29

As to the content of Harman’s piece, the first remark I would make is how different it is from all the other contributions. These others sometimes strike me as a contest to see who can find the optimum quote from Trotsky to prove their political point—look I’ve got a bigger one than you! It is striking that footnotes and Trotsky quotes are missing from Harman’s. He seems to be the one contributor to take Trotsky’s 1906 words from Results and Prospects to heart: “Marxism is above all a method of analysis—not analysis of texts, but analysis of social relations”.

The second most noteworthy thing to say is that this contribution could only come from someone in the IS tradition. Those contributions from the orthodox Trotskyist tradition are most intent on protecting not just the essence of Trotsky but also every specific aspect of Trotsky. The piece by Cliff Slaughter of the Socialist Labour League is a partial exception in that, in the typical sectarian manner, Slaughter seeks to protect Trotsky but also destroy Mandel at the same time. It is only someone from IS that could say: “Much more is at stake here than just Trotsky’s position in history. This can well take care of itself despite the carping of old Stalinists and new philistines”.30

In the eyes of Krassó it is clear that Lenin was a great man who could do no wrong. All actions have to be measured against the real or imagined actions of this great man. Harman has a far more balanced approach, realising that: “Lenin and Trotsky represented two different styles of leadership that were conjoined together in the total process of revolution. Both made mistakes corresponding to their styles”. Ian Birchall reminds us: “On the Harman piece itself the account he gives of Lenin’s political development, in which he draws out mistakes and inconsistencies was quite typical of pre-1968 IS—and of course it is to some extent reflected in Cliff’s Lenin. It contrasts with the much more ‘orthodox’ approach to Lenin in the more recent SWP”.31

Molyneux has this to say on the matter: “It should be noted at the outset that the political purpose of Krassó’s case is to attempt to steer a middle course between Trotsky and Stalin in the name of Lenin and that this leads him to a position of semi-Stalinism”.32

A number of the other themes picked up by Harman pre-figure comments and arguments brought forward by others, both within the contemporary debate, and in subsequent years. Key among these themes is Krassó’s mis-treatment of “Socialism in One Country versus Permanent Revolution”. You can read Harman’s 1967 thoughts in his article. How:

Once again the mechanism for this is the rewriting of history begun by Stalinism. This time it is the “Theory of Permanent Revolution” that has to be distorted. As in the Stalinist original, it is this that is blamed for the opposition to “Socialism in One Country”. As in the Stalinist original, Trotsky’s viewpoint is counterposed to that of Lenin. But this is possible only by distorting both Lenin and Trotsky.33

Over the ensuing years, other writers in the IS tradition have commented on this aspect. Writing in 1982, Alex Callinicos says:

The third element of Trotsky’s theory was the most prominent in the debates of the 1920s. This was his rejection of the notion of “socialism in one country” and insistence that:

“…the completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. One of the basic reasons for the crisis in bourgeois society is the fact that the productive forces created by it can no longer be reconciled with the framework of the national state. From this follow, on the one hand, imperialist wars, on the other, the utopia of a bourgeois United States of Europe. The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on the entire planet” (Trotsky, Permanent Revolution, p279).

This thesis was axiomatic among the Bolsheviks at the time of the October Revolution, and was only abandoned as part of the shift after Lenin’s death towards a strategy based on the national interests of the Russian bureaucracy. Trotsky did not, of course, mean that world revolution had to be a simultaneous uprising of workers across the globe, an absurd notion foisted on him by Stalin, and still accepted by some today (See J Stalin, On the Opposition (Peking, 1974) and N Krasso, “Trotsky’s Marxism”, New Left Review 44, July-August 1967)”.34

In 2012 Davidson writes:

Stalin did not waste time in a serious engagement with Trotsky’s position [ie Permanent Revolution], but simply misrepresented it as “the universal theory of the simultaneous victory of the revolution in the principal countries of Europe” (J. Stalin, 1924, “The October Revolution and the Tactics of the Russian Communists”)…

These claims were still being repeated 40 years later by writers who were by no means all Stalinists. Nicolas Krassó, for example, thought that Trotsky envisaged revolution taking place not only across Europe but the entire world, in “a continuous conflagration at all times and all places—a metaphysical carnival of insurrection,” remarks that suggest a limited acquaintance with Trotsky’s actual writings. See Krassó, 1967, “Trotsky’s Marxism”.35

It is worth recording that on the question of Permanent Revolution, writers in the debate (such as Ken Tarbuck) and subsequently (such as Michael Löwy) have pointed out that Krassó seems unaware or has forgotten that the term actually originated with Karl Marx.

Harman does not focus all his fire directly on to Krassó’s central thesis, which is probably described most succinctly by Mandel as that:

Trotsky’s original sin is lack of understanding of the role of the revolutionary party, his belief that social forces can directly and immediately mould history, that they are, as it were, “transportable” into political organisations. This prevented him from ever understanding Lenin’s theory of organisation, and led to crass “sociologism” and voluntarism. From his rejection of Bolshevism in 1904, to his role in the October Revolution and in building up the Red Army, his defeat in the inner-party struggle of 1923-27, his style as a historian and his “futile attempt” to build a Fourth International, sociologism and voluntarism constitute a single nexus. Trotsky’s Marxism thus “forms a consistent and characteristic unity, from his early youth to his old age”.36

Instead Harman explains a wider political point that:

In general Krassó attempts to see Trotsky’s failure as flowing from his inability to organise at the level of the party. Indeed, “by presenting a threat with no solid institutional or political foundations but with a great array of public gestures, Trotsky provided precisely what the apparatus and Stalin, as its most outstanding representative, needed”. This is seen as being related to his pre-revolutionary non-Bolshevism. What nonsense this is. Not only does it ignore the presence in the opposition of many prominent old Bolsheviks (only Stalinist historiography has deprived them of prominence), but it also fails to account for the fact that the epitome of the old Bolshevik, for years Lenin’s closest collaborator, Zinoviev, was just as incapable (if not more so) as Trotsky in organising against Stalin, even though he started from a stronger base. Both Trotsky, “the most able man on the Central Committee” (Lenin) and Zinoviev, the arch party organiser, were defeated by Stalin and the apparatus. The reason cannot lie in any approach to politics of Trotsky. Rather it lies in the fact that politics only has meaning as a sort of operation carried out on social forces. If these are strong enough, no political strategy can change them—to deny this is the essence of a voluntarism of which Krassó, not Trotsky, is the victim.37

Others in the debate and since have brought forth (quite correctly) a veritable battery of extracts from Trotsky’s writings to show that Krassó’s central thesis is wide of the mark, albeit there is general acceptance that Trotsky rejected the essence of Lenin’s theory of organisation before 1917. Molyneux cites extended extracts from Trotsky’s The Lessons of October and The Class, the Party and the Leadership and says:

He [Krassó] maintains that the whole of Trotsky’s theory and practice is “best understood in the framework of a single problem: Trotsky’s relation to the party as a revolutionary organisation of the proletariat, and its latent theoretical foundations”, and that Trotsky never grasped the Leninist theory of the party. According to this view the “conversion” of 1917 was superficial, and Krassó convicts Trotsky of the “specific theoretical deviation…[of] sociologism…class struggle becomes the immediate internal “truth” of any political event, and mass forces became the exclusive historical agents”. However accurate this charge may be when directed at the early Trotsky, the best that can be said for it as a characterisation of Trotsky’s thought as a whole is that it is made in ignorance of a large part of Trotsky’s work. For it is an indisputable fact that the role of the revolutionary party in particular and political parties in general is an absolutely central theme in almost everything that Trotsky wrote and did after 1917.38

Löwy, following Mandel, takes the disagreement with Krassó further than Molyneux and questions the validity of sociologism in the younger Trotsky as well as the post-1917 Trotsky:

In his reply to Krassó, Ernest Mandel has shown quite clearly how this imputation of “sociologism” is totally irrelevant in relation to Trotsky’s post-1917 writings (for example, his famous analysis of the political conjuncture in Germany in the early 1930s). I would extend his caveat and assert that Krassó’s charge is not valid for the young Trotsky of Results and Prospects (1906) either.39

For me the two most important parts of Chris Harman’s piece are:

Its concrete explanation that the struggle for the soul of the Russian Revolution was nothing to do with “power politics” and the battle between individuals.

Putting the matter not as one of “Trotsky, right or wrong” but one of understanding what happened in Russia as a critical element of the fight for future change.

Harman has crammed a lot into his short review. The more I read it the more I continue to get out of it. It is a delight to have brought this work to light at long last.

Closing remarks

I feel it incumbent on me to say another brief word about Krassó’s original essay, and indeed, his subsequent contributions to the debate. I am conscious that in my earlier brief look at his essay I focused almost exclusively on his negative treatment of Trotsky. I was justified in so doing, not only because his essay is very much skewed in that direction, but also because I was seeking sensibly to position both the debate and Harman’s contribution to it. It would be a boring and pointless debate to reproduce areas of self-congratulatory back-slapping and agreement. I would, however, like to record that, just as with Harman’s piece, I also found Krassó’s contributions stimulating and rewarding to read.

I know little about Krassó’s subsequent political development and whether he changed any of his views after the Trotsky debate. I do note, however, that for the 1972 US-published book he wrote a new “Preface” which he dates as November 1970. Here Krassó gives, to my mind at least, a more generous rendering of his views on Trotsky. I reproduce the opening of this “Preface” here to hopefully balance out my previous negativity:

Four years have now passed since I wrote “Trotsky’s Marxism” but nothing that has happened in this period has altered my conviction that an assessment of Trotsky’s contribution to Marxism remains a vital task for the revolutionary movement. Whether his theses were correct or incorrect, he was one of the few major Marxist thinkers who attempted a scientific evaluation of the political issues raised by the ascendancy of Stalin in the international Communist movement. His ideas on a whole range of issues, from the dual nature of the Soviet state to the class dynamics of the anti-imperialist struggle, from the nature of socialist democracy to the forms of the revolution in the imperialist countries themselves, remain crucial poles of reference in debates between revolutionaries.40

I will not pretend that Harman’s review of Krassó stands comparison with the very best things he ever wrote—he was still young and not widely published in 1967. It is, however, an important piece that shows us his ability to look at a political problem and get to its root using the best of the Marxist method. Chris is surely right when he says that the crucial issue at stake in the debate is not the figure of Trotsky but: “the question of a Marxist interpretation of the last 40 years”.41

John Rudge is a trade union and political activist since the 1970s. Following retirement from a job in project management, he focuses more time on archiving, researching and documenting the history of the SWP.


1 My thanks are due to Sebastian Budgen and Ian Birchall for their assistance in bringing this research to fruition. I also thank Perry Anderson, Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn for their efforts to recall matters from 50 years ago, which they can hardly have been expected to remember.

2 Harman, 2018.

3 Personal communication.

4 Birchall, 1980, p79.

5 Published in International Socialism, see Harman, 2018.

6 Ali, 1984.

7 Sedgwick, 1976.

8 Founded in 1937, the American Socialist Workers Party is unrelated to the British party of the same name.

9 Krassó, 1967.

10 Blackburn, 1986.

12 Birchall, 1980, p53.

13 Davidson, 2004, p111.

14 Krassó, 1967, p65.

15 Krassó, 1967, p72.

16 Mandel, 1969, p69.

17 Birchall, 1980, p78.

18 Molyneux, 1981.

19 Krassó, 1967, p74.

20 Krassó, 1967, p75.

21 Krassó, 1967, p76.

22 Krassó, 1967, p79.

23 Krassó, 1967, pp82-83.

24 Krassó, 1967, pp84-85.

25 Krassó, 1967, pp85-86.

26 See Krassó, 1972.

27 Sedgwick, 1968, p15, footnote 28.

28 Harman, 2018, pp145 and 148.

29 Mandel, 1968, p33.

30 Harman, 2018, p150.

31 Personal communication.

32 Molyneux, 1981.

33 Harman, 2018, p148.

34 Callinicos, 1982, p101, my italics.

35 Davidson, 2012, pp251 and 685.

36 Mandel, 1968, p33.

37 Harman, 2018, p148.

38 Molyneux, 1981.

39 LÖwy, 1981.

40 Krassó, 1972.

41 Harman, 2018, p150.


Ali, Tariq (ed), 1984, The Stalinist Legacy: Its Impact on 20th Century World Politics (Penguin Books).

Birchall, Ian, 1980, “The Autonomy of Theory: A Short History of New Left Review”, International Socialism 10 (autumn),

Blackburn, Robin, 1986, “Nicolas Krassó (1930-1986)”, New Left Review I/155.

Callinicos, Alex, 1982, “Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution and its Relevance to the Third World Today”, International Socialism 16 (spring),

Davidson, Neil, 2004, “Isaac Deutscher: The Prophet, his Biographer and the Watchtower”, International Socialism 104 (autumn),

Davidson, Neil, 2012, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Haymarket).

Harman, Chris, 2018 [1967], “Trotsky and the New Stalinism”, International Socialism 160 (autumn),

Krassó, Nicolas, 1967, “Trotsky’s Marxism”, New Left Review, I/44 (July-August),

Krassó, Nicolas (ed), 1972, Trotsky: The Great Debate Renewed (New Critics Press).

Löwy, Michael, 1981, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution (Verso Editions and NLB).

Mandel, Ernest, 1968, “Trotsky’s Marxism: An Anti-critique”, New Left Review, I/47.

Mandel, Ernest, 1969, “Trotsky’s Marxism: A Rejoinder”, New Left Review, I/56.

Molyneux, John, 1981, Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Revolution (Harvester Press).

Sedgwick, Peter, 1968, “Tragedy of the Tragedian: An Appreciation of Isaac Deutscher”, International Socialism 31 (first series, winter),

Sedgwick, Peter, 1976, “Farewell, Grosvenor Square”, in David Widgery (ed), The Left in Britain, 1956-1968 (Penguin Books).

Table 1: Chronology of the Life of Trotsky – Krassó and Deutscher

Krassó’s “Four distinct phases of Trotsky’s life”


“Lenin’s Cudgel” to founder-member Menshevik

Party and Class

“Results and Prospects”

Permanent Revolution

The Absence of the Party

“The Intelligentsia and Socialism”



From military to economic problems



The political-tactical struggle

The ideological and strategic struggle

Socialism in one country versus permanent revolution

Trotsky’s conception

Theoretical error

Collectivisation and industrialisation



Deutscher’s biographical phases of Trotsky’s life


The Prophet Armed:

Home and school

In search of an ideal

At the door of history

An intellectual partnership

Trotsky in 1905

“Permanent revolution”

The Doldrums: 1907-14

War and the International

The people’s commissar

The drama of Brest-Litovsk

Arming the republic

Revolution and conquest

Defeat in victory


The Prophet Unarmed:

The power and the dream

The anathema

“Not by politics alone…”

An interval

The decisive contest: 1926-7

A year at Alma Ata


The Prophet Outcast:

On the Princes’ Isle

Reason and unreason

The revolutionary as historian

“Enemy of the people”

The “hell-black night”

Postscript: victory in defeat

*One part of the NLR text says 1927, another part says 1929. Common sense dictates that “distinct” phases cannot overlap so 1929 is assumed correct.

Table 2: Chronology of the “Trotsky’s Marxism” Debate





July-August 1967

Nicolas Krassó

Trotsky’s Marxism

New Left Review I/44

1967 (published in 2018)

Chris Harman

Trotsky and the New Stalinism

International Socialism 160

January-February 1968

Ernest Mandel

Trotsky’s Marxism: An Anti-Critique

New Left Review I/47

March-April 1968

Nicolas Krassó

Reply to Ernest Mandel

New Left Review I/48

July-August 1968

Monty Johnstone

Trotsky and the Debate on Socialism in One Country

New Left Review I/50

July-August 1968

Tamara Deutscher

On Krassó’s Reply to Mandel

New Left Review I/50

August 1968

Cliff Slaughter

Trotsky’s Marxism Under Attack

Fourth International, volume 5, number 2

September-October 1968

Nicolas Krassó

Reply to Tamara Deutscher

New Left Review I/51

September-October 1968

Roberto Yepe

Trotsky’s Marxism: A Comment

New Left Review I/51

September-October 1968

Nicolas Krassó

Reply to Roberto Yepe

New Left Review I/51

Autumn 1968

Ken Tarbuck

Trotsky’s Marxism: A Reply to Nicolas Krassó

The Bulletin of Marxist Studies, volume 1, number 2

July-August 1969

Ernest Mandel

Trotsky’s Marxism: A Rejoinder

New Left Review I/56


David Horowitz
Nicolas Krassó; Ernest Mandel; Monty Johnstone; Roberto Yepe;
C.J. Arthur

Introduction by David Horowitz (new)
Preface by Nicolas Krassó (new)
Trotsky’s Marxism;
Trotsky’s Marxism: An Anti-Critique;
Reply to Ernest Mandel;
Trotsky’s Marxism: A Rejoinder;
Trotsky’s Marxism: A Comment;
Reply to Roberto Yepe;
Trotsky and the Debate on Socialism in One Country;
Reply to Ernest Mandel by Monty Johnstone (new);
The Coming Soviet Revolution by Chris Arthur (new)**

Krassó, Nicolas (ed), 1972, Trotsky: The Great Debate Renewed (New Critics Press).

**An earlier version of this article was published as “Workers’ States: Problems of Transition” under the pen name “B Biro”. It appeared in The Bulletin of Marxist Studies, volume 1, number 4, spring 1969.

Note: What became known as the “Trotsky’s Marxism Debate” has had a proprietary feel to it ie it is owned by New Left Review. A part of my aim in this piece of research is to enable the debate to be seen in a wider context.