Trotsky and the New Stalinism

Issue: 160

Chris Harman

In 1967 New Left Review (NLR) published an article called “Trotsky’s Marxism” by Nicolas Krassó.1 A former pupil of the great Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács, Krassó (1930-86) played an active role in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and helped to initiate the Central Workers’ Council of Budapest.2 Forced into exile in Britain, he joined the NLR editorial committee. Despite these excellent anti-Stalinist credentials, Krassó’s article was a scathingly critical assessment of Leon Trotsky’s thought and political life, which (according to Krassó) is systematically characterised by “sociologism”, where “social classes…are extracted from the complex historical totality and hypostasised in an idealist fashion as the demiurges of any given political situation” with the result that “political ­organisations or institutions” are denied any independent significance.3 This theoretical “deviation”, according to Krassó, explains in particular Trotsky’s defeat by Stalin and his failure to develop an effective political alternative to the orthodox Communist parties.

The publication of the article revealed a degree of ambivalence about both Trotsky and Stalinism on the part of the NLR editorial team, headed by Perry Anderson, despite their admiration for Trotsky’s biographer, Isaac Deutscher.4 The text also shows signs of the theoretical influence of the French Communist philosopher Louis Althusser, whose work was then being strongly promoted by NLR. Naturally it provoked a vigorous debate involving, among others, Deutscher’s widow and co-thinker Tamara Deutscher, the leading Trotskyist theoretician Ernest Mandel and the independent Communist Party intellectual Monty Johnstone.5

Chris Harman, already at the time a leading figure in what was then called the International Socialism group (now the Socialist Workers Party) at the age of 25, later told friends that he had submitted a contribution to this debate. The article was never published, for reasons that remain obscure, and it was thought to have been lost. But now Harman’s text has been rediscovered thanks to the remarkable archaeological efforts of John Rudge. John has very kindly offered it to International Socialism, and we are most happy to publish this lost work, which, as he says, “could only come from someone in the IS tradition”.6

It shows Chris already at full intellectual power, defending Trotsky against Krassó’s largely misconceived polemic, but from a perspective that is not afraid to criticise him. According to John, it was probably written in autumn 1967, in direct response to Krassó’s original piece and before any of the other contributions to the debate had appeared in NLR. That same autumn, International Socialism (of which Chris was soon to become the editor) published his article: “Russia: How the Revolution was Lost”, which, in various editions, has helped generations of young socialists grapple with the defeat of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. His research for the article no doubt informs his critique of Krassó, while its concluding paragraph helps to explain why Chris thought it politically important to take up the cudgels in Trotsky’s defence, despite the mistakes he made:

The Left Opposition was far from clear about what it was fighting. Trotsky, to his dying day, believed that that state apparatus that was to hunt him down and murder him was a “degenerated workers’ one”. Yet it was that Opposition alone which fought day by day against the Stalinist apparatus’s destruction of the revolution at home and prevention of revolution abroad. For a whole historical period, it alone resisted the distorting effects on the socialist movement of Stalinism and Social Democracy. Its own theories about Russia made this task more difficult, but it still carried it out. That is why today any genuinely revolutionary movement must place itself in that tradition.7

In this sense the two pieces complement each other and demonstrate the intellectual approach Chris would use throughout his life—employing the Marxist method critically to illuminate great historical conflicts as a means of clarifying what socialism means in the present.

AC 23 September 2018.


Trotsky and the New Stalinism

A tendency for veiled apologies for Stalin’s historical role has become increasingly prevalent of late in the New Left Review (NLR). This is particularly regrettable in a journal whose inception owed much to a revulsion—however ambiguous—against both Stalinism and Social Democracy. Now it seems the full circle has been turned. No other interpretation seems possible for Nicolas Krassó’s essay on Leon Trotsky and the editorial praise for it.

The author pretends to an objectivity that puts him above the “violent ­polarisation of his [Trotsky’s] image”. Unfortunately, this merely conceals a distortion of history and a slanting of perspectives that reads like a rather more sophisticated version of the old History of the CPSU(B).

Factually the article leaves a great deal to be desired. To a very large extent the hoary old legends of both Stalinist and anti-Communist historians are merely reiterated. For instance, Rosa Luxemburg is depicted as undertaking “explicit exaltation of spontaneity”, although the most cursory reading of either of the major biographies (Paul Frölich’s or John Nettl’s) on Luxemburg would indicate that in fact her position on the relation of party and class was often amazingly close to that of Lenin. This is evident in her writings and activities in relation to Poland after 1905. Even her better-known Mass Strike is not a call for passive reactions to spontaneous movements: it is rather an attempt to show the interrelation of party activity and mass “spontaneous” activity as a guide to further party activity.

The major element of factual distortion does not lie here, however, but in the counterposing of Trotsky to Lenin and to Bolshevism. This is true to the tradition of Stalinist historiography invented (as Grigori Zinoviev later admitted) during the struggle against the Left Opposition in 1923-4. Krassó attempts to show, by abstracting Trotsky’s concrete actions from their historical context, a wavering, inconsistent, ineffective Trotsky in the period 1902-1917, so as to be able to discredit Trotsky’s style of Marxism. So we are shown Trotsky cooperating with Lenin, Trotsky opposed to Lenin, Trotsky praising Pavel Axelrod, above all: “Trotsky’s acceptance of the traditional categories and the prejudices that went with them”, thereby reducing his position to that of a “franc-tireur outside the organised ranks of the working class”. The hollowness of such analysis can be demonstrated by applying it in a similar way to Lenin: first cooperating with Peter Struve (a scarcely concealed bourgeois liberal), then with Julius Martov, then leading a party whose major figures were god-seekers and ultra-lefts, having faith in the centrist Karl Kautsky right up to the outbreak of the First World War, accepting a completely Menshevik theory of the Russian Revolution and imbuing his party with it almost until it was too late, then doing a complete somersault and lining up with Trotsky…above all completely failing to realise the significance of the party he was building, instead merely believing he was adapting the German social-democrat to Russian conditions. (What Krassó calls “Lenin’s fundamental thesis” is after all a verbatim quote from Kautsky8).

The point is that the procedure is completely illegitimate in both cases. 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 (Lenin, for instance, was not over-impressed by the generalisability of What is to be Done?, warning against its translation for foreign parties unless well prefaced; he also remarked as to the “silly things” his faction had done in the early days).

These differences had no bearing whatsoever on the differences that emerged within the Russian leadership from 1923 onwards. To argue they do is to replace Marxist analysis by the crudest form of idealistic psychologism. Yet this is what Krassó does.

The divisions within the Bolshevik Party cannot be understood in personal terms alone. To see the opposition of Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Stalin as one of opposition of old Bolsheviks to a late-comer is to miss the major dimension in the party struggles of the 1920s. The fact is that in these, both old Bolsheviks and newcomers were to be found on both sides. Significantly, the early oppositions in the party (Workers’ Opposition and the Decembrists) were led and in the main composed of old Bolsheviks (such as Alexandra Kollontai, who had been very close to Lenin in 1917, and Alexander Shlyapnikov). Many of the signatories of the first major document of the Left Opposition—the Platform of the 46—were longstanding party members. In the long run all the prominent Bolsheviks of 1917 (with the exception of Stalin and of Kollontai who changed sides) were to find themselves on the opposite side to Stalin (even if they had to be put there by his firing squads).

What was at stake was not the opposition of the party to a newcomer (although this flavoured the attitudes of some party members), but the response of the party to the situation in which it found itself. This, Krassó completely ignores. With the decimation of the working class in Russia (amply documented in Isaac Deutscher’s The Prophet Unarmed), the Bolsheviks found themselves alone holding power and having to maintain the cohesion of the social structure. This forced them to implement policies at both the national and local level that were a response to immediate (anti-socialist) class forces, rather than in accord with the historical interests of the working class and socialism (eg both the NEP and War Communism). In the process both the Bolshevik Party itself (diluted by extraneous elements) and individual Bolsheviks (increasingly succumbing to authoritarian and bureaucratic attitudes) were transformed. The various oppositions to the dominant leadership in the party (including Lenin’s own as expressed in his last writings) only make sense as attempts to articulate concern at this process of inner decay and to formulate policies that would produce social forces to counteract it. The increasingly ruthless handling of the oppositions by the party (contrast the almost genteel handling of the Workers’ Opposition with the crude hounding of the Unified Opposition five years later) only makes sense as the defence by the new bureaucratic, authoritarian elements of their positions.

For Marxists, it is only in terms of the framework of contending social forces that the political activities of parties and individuals make sense. Krassó attacks Trotsky’s lack of awareness of the “political” (a strange attack to make on the man who saw both the defeats in Germany and China as flowing from mistaken politics). But he himself displays a complete inability to comprehend the interrelation of political action and social forces (this is in the worst traditions of both Stalinist and liberal historiography). For him the struggle in the party was between Trotsky and Stalin, and Trotsky lost because “he made mistake after mistake”. Thus Trotsky is blamed for concentrating his fire in 1923-4 on Zinoviev and Kamenev, not Stalin. This shows a two-fold misreading of reality. Firstly, it was rather the case that Zinoviev, etc. were most vehement in their opposition to Trotsky in this period (while Stalin was apparently slightly more moderate), rather than vice versa. Secondly, it ignores the fact that Zinoviev in particular was as much a ruler and creature of the bureaucracy in this time as Stalin. His rule in Leningrad was as total, ruthless and in opposition to socialist tradition as Stalin’s was becoming elsewhere. It was only when a clash between his own bureaucratic structure and Stalin’s became inevitable that he began to revert to more socialist modes of thinking.

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.

But Krassó is not content with merely misconstruing the reality of the struggle in the Bolshevik Party by ignoring real social forces. He also uses distortion of facts to justify coming down on the anti-socialist side in the struggle.

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. In Lenin’s case this is done by ignoring his numerous statements stressing the backward nature of Russia, the need for help from abroad and the fact that the revolution only made sense as a component of the world revolution. Instead, his statements stressing the need for a pragmatic approach to problems in Russia, so as to maintain it as a citadel of the world revolution are quoted.

With Trotsky, the same one-sided treatment is reversed, so we are shown his concern with the world revolution, but not his numerous proposals and actions concerned with maintaining the Bolshevik fortress. This done it is then easy to oppose Lenin to Trotsky.

In fact, however, the opposition to “Socialism in One Country” that Krassó (following Stalin) ascribes to the “Theory of Permanent Revolution” was an accepted part of all Bolshevik doctrine until 1924 (even Stalin, in the first edition of Lenin and Leninism accepts it). It was not dependent on two “vague in the extreme” arguments about the crippling effect of the world market and the impossibility of defending an isolated socialist state. These are deductions from the argument, rather than the argument itself. This is that socialism is not just a particular economic arrangement, but a realisation of human potential, a releasing of productive forces that previous modes of production have given rise to. This demands both a certain development of productive forces and of human culture. Only in this situation can a “revolution of the majority in the interests of the majority” take place. (All of this was common ground between Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and Trotsky.) In making the revolution the Bolsheviks did not repudiate this, but did begin to see that the combined and uneven development of capitalism meant that the productive forces capable of developing socialism on a world scale might break through the existing social structure first of all in underdeveloped countries. But precisely because the revolution was the result of world forces, it could not develop independently of them. It would be defeated by the low level of development of internal productive forces and culture. Lenin was acutely aware of this. Why else did he constantly lament the low level of culture, in particular?

In terms of immediate policies, to be for or against the theory of “Socialism in One Country” did not seem to mean much. Certainly its opponents did not wish to wait on the world revolution. Although Krassó seems to accept this (Stalinist) libel, he later demonstrates its fallacy when he shows the opposition’s central concern with immediate economic problems. Indeed, when Stalin first propounded the theory it was its proponents who behaved in a passive manner, being willing to wait for the peasants to move to socialism at a “snail’s pace”.

The meaning of the theory was rather different. It substituted for a realistic appraisal of the backwardness of Russia and the “sacrifices” necessary if the revolution was to be able to defend itself without outside help, a falsely optimistic view of the situation. It concealed the extent to which the people of Russia, the working class and the peasantry, would have to suffer if policies capable of building up industry for national defence were to be carried through in isolation. In this sense its function was purely ideological, to obscure reality, not to expose it.

Such a theory could not be the theory of the working class or of a party truly representing the working class. These had nothing to gain by concealing how much the defence of an isolated Soviet Union would cost them (and did). The Russian working class had nothing to lose by an unveiled recognition of reality. It had everything to gain from the possibilities abroad that only such a scientific viewing could open up.

Such a theory did make sense, however, to the bureaucrats who constituted (as Krassó himself seems to recognise) the backbone of Stalin’s support. Revolution abroad could only create conditions of instability that would threaten their rule. It was not (and is not) a question of “Stalin’s instinctive mistrust of the Western European proletariat”. The whole policy of the Russian leadership since 1924 has been directed to subordinating to their interests foreign revolutionary movements and to limiting any genuine popular movement. In China in the 1920s, in Germany, France and Spain in the 1930s, in Italy and Greece in the 1940s the same general policy has prevailed. One cannot say for certain that without Moscow-inspired policies the revolution would have been successful in these countries. But there can be no doubt that it would have had a greater chance of success.

Krassó writes that “history kept different times in Paris, Rome, London or Moscow”. This is a truism. But when he goes on to assert that Stalin understood this and not Trotsky he once more replaces arbitrary constructions for real history. Isolated in Turkey, relying on outdated papers and unreliable ­correspondents, Trotsky was to show a far more perceptive insight into what was happening in Germany than Stalin with all the resources of the Comintern at his disposal.

Krassó’s major argument for “Socialism in One Country” seems to be that arguments against it were “disconfirmed” by actual events. But were they? The Russian state survived. In the process, however, it is difficult to see which victories of the revolution remained for either the Russian working class or for the world historical movement towards socialism. In Russia today there are no workers’ Soviets, no workers’ control of production, and externally the policy of peaceful co-existence helps international imperialism. Tanks are used in both Eastern Europe and internally to keep the workers in their place.

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. More crucial is the question of a Marxist interpretation of the last 40 years. This has been a period of defeat after defeat for the working class movement. These defeats can only be understood when one begins to comprehend what happened to the Russian Revolution. This means examining the real content of the struggles within the Soviet leadership in the 1920s. This understanding has to be linked to an unremitting critique of Stalinist practice—whether in Germany in the 1930s or Indonesia in the 1960s. Socialist theory has a vital role to play here. But not theory in the sense in which Krassó sees it. He counterposes “violent polarisation” to “rational discussion”. His theory is that of the Owl of Minerva looking with disinterested contempt at the struggles of a previous generation. This involves a complete inversion of the Marxist interrelation of theory and practice. One can only grasp reality in the process of striving to change it in a total manner. The fact is that, in the struggle between Stalin and the Left ­Opposition, one side was rational in its arguments and one not. One was struggling, however ineffectively (and this was hardly its own fault, given the overwhelming resources of those opposed to it, their ability to liquidate all its most able leaders, the general context of defeat after defeat for the world socialist movement) for such change, one against it. Trotsky made mistakes (as did Lenin and Marx). He did not, indeed, given what he was struggling for, could not, distort history. While within the apparatus a monolithic line prevailed, within the opposition the Bolshevik tradition of scientific debate continued.

It is not a question of “magical attitudes” towards Trotsky. It is rather that the critique of Stalinism is still of central importance.

If, as the NLR 44 editorial writes, “there is no major area in the non-communist world where armed counter-revolution has not registered a triumph in the last few years” this is in part a result of the continued legacy of Stalin. In Indonesia and Iraq the massacring of Communists has been witness to the validity of the attack Trotsky made on Stalinist practice in China 40 years ago. Even in Vietnam it can be argued that the masses are still paying in blood for the Moscow-inspired policies of 1945 and 1954 (policies that, incidentally, followed on the murder of the significant Trotskyist leaders in Vietnam). The Revolution Betrayed might have been a “demagogic title”9 (as was The Renegade Kautsky) but it must correspond closely to the feelings of those in Iraqi or Indonesian prisons, let alone to the few who survived Vorkuta. Such defeats will only cease when a new revolutionary movement arises based upon revolutionary, scientific, Marxist analysis. This must learn from the most successful working class revolution yet, and from the only organised force to carry these traditions forward in a period of global counter-revolution: the Left Opposition. Those such as Krassó who do not see this are only contributing to the ideological preparation for future defeats.


1 Krassó, 1967.

2 Krassó, 1984.

3 Krassó, 1967, pp72 and 85.

4 See Tariq Ali’s vivid account of debates over Stalinism and Maoism involving Anderson when in October 1967 they were both members of a delegation in La Paz trying to save Régis Debray from the same fate at the hands of the Bolivian military and its CIA handlers as Che Guevara had suffered—Ali, 1987, chapter 6.

5 Many of the contributions (though strangely not Deutscher’s) were republished in book form in the United States—Krassó, 1972.

6 John Rudge’s own, more detailed introduction to Harman’s text can be found at

7 Harman, 1967.

8 Krassó refers to: “Lenin’s fundamental thesis that socialism as a theory had to be brought to the working class from the outside, through a party which included the revolutionary intelligentsia”—Krassó, 1967, p66. He notes that Trotsky initially criticised Lenin’s position as “substitutionism” in his 1904 work “Our Political Tasks”, written shortly after the split between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks.

9 Krassó refers to this 1937 book by Trotsky as “more serious than the demagogic title under which it was published indicated”—Krassó, 1967, p85.


Ali, Tariq, 1987, Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties (Collins).

Harman, Chris, 1967, “Russia: How the Revolution was Lost”, International Socialism 30 (first series, autumn),

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

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

Krassó, Nicolas, 1984, “Hungary 1956: A Participant’s Account”, in Tariq Ali (ed), The Stalinist Legacy: Its Impact on Twentieth-Century World Politics (Penguin).