In the shadow of orthodox Trotskyism

Issue: 122

Joseph Choonara

Emanuele Saccarelli, Gramsci and Trotsky in the Shadow of Stalinism (Routledge, 2008), £60

Books culled from doctoral theses are rarely page-turners but this work by unashamed Trotskyist Emanuele Saccarelli is better than most. Saccarelli attempts to rescue Antonio Gramsci and Leon Trotsky from the slander, misappropriation, distortion and, especially in Trotsky’s case, silencing that academia has subjected them to. The chapters that focus on this task will contain few surprises to longstanding readers of this journal—with one exception that I will return to—but they form a useful survey and are written in a pugilistic style with plenty of wit.

The author’s second aim is to assess the two revolutionaries’ relationships to, and analyses of, Stalinism. Saccarelli argues that from the mid-1920s Gramsci occupied a position somewhere between that of the majority in the Communist Party, led by Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin, and that of the opposition led by Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. While Gramsci “formally supported the political line of the Stalinist majority, he rather systematically infused its slogans and policies with a distinct political content that alarmed and angered” the Stalin_Bukharin grouping.

Drawing on recent work by scholars such as Giuseppe Vacca, Francesco Benvenuti and Silvio Pons, Saccarelli shows how this ambiguity shaped both Gramsci’s political stances and his famous Prison Notebooks. The latter contain, among much else, a spirited defence of the united front in the face of Stalinism’s break with this approach. But, confusingly, the passages in which Gramsci develops this argument also explicitly attack Trotsky, who, alongside Lenin, was the main protagonist for the adoption of the united front.

Saccarelli quite convincingly argues that Trotsky’s name is used as a “lightning rod” to mount a coded attack on Stalinism. The cryptic style in the notebooks was not simply to evade the prison censor but also to avoid an open break with Stalinism. Even if Gramsci had resolved the ambiguity in his political position, an attack on Stalin would have broken the one lifeline securing his contact with the workers’ movement beyond the prison walls and would have been exploited by his fascist jailors.

It was Trotsky, rather than Gramsci, who most clearly identified Stalinism as a novel political phenomena. This book details Trotsky’s pathbreaking analysis of the degeneration of the Soviet Union. However, it is here that the limitations of Saccarelli’s own particular brand of orthodox Trotskyism are most evident.

The author sees 1923 as a key turning point. That year saw Lenin’s effective withdrawal from political life and his replacement by “a semi-secret ruling ‘triumvirate’…of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev”. It was the year of the consolidation of the New Economic Policy. This policy allowed some capitalist mechanisms to function under the tight control of the workers’ state in order to gain time for revolution to spread beyond Russia. But it also laid the basis for Stalin to break with Kamenev and Zinoviev and temporarily ally himself with Bukharin’s right wing of the Communist Party, which now argued for a transition to socialism at a “snail’s pace” and called on peasants to “enrich themselves”.

Finally, 1923 saw the defeat of the German Revolution, paving the way for Stalin’s later doctrine of “socialism in one country” rather than international revolution. These events each strengthened the bureaucracy around Stalin, which increasingly dominated the state machinery and the Communist Party, but this did not yet mark a complete break with the legacy of the 1917 Revolution.

Saccarelli fails to recognise the significance of a second turning point in 1928-9. He notes a series of political manoeuvres that ultimately saw Trotsky exiled and political opposition to Stalin broken. But this period also saw the bureaucracy forge itself into a social class through the forced collectivisation it imposed on the peasantry and the first Five Year Plan through which it established its control over industry.

Now the bureaucracy was not simply a “caste” controlling “the mechanisms of economic distribution” as Trotsky believed. It had established itself as a new ruling class presiding over the economic exploitation of the mass of workers. It subordinated the consumption of the masses to the accumulation of capital as it sought to compete with the Western powers. In short, a system of “bureaucratic state capitalism” was born. This system eradicated the last vestiges of workers’ control. The fact that capitalist property was nationalised does not alter the facts; it is the ruling class’s control over the means of production, rather than its legal ownership of them, that is crucial.

A transition to socialism would now have required a new social revolution, not simply the political revolution that Trotsky advocated. Trotsky’s prognoses, for instance, that the Stalinist regime was inherently unstable or that it was not an imperialist power, were dramatically disproved in the aftermath of the Second World War. Not only was Stalinism stable but it also established its grip over a number of Eastern European regimes.

At one point Saccarelli quotes Trotsky’s assessment of the distortion of “Leninism” by the Stalinists: “the transformation of Leninism from a method demanding for its application initiative, critical thinking and ideological courage into a canon which demands nothing more than interpreters appointed for good and aye”. The same could be said of Saccarelli’s brand of Trotskyism.

So in the chapter devoted to rescuing Trotsky from the academics Saccarelli also seeks to rescue him from more sympathetic theorists—including Tony Cliff, who the author recognises as “the most prominent contemporary theorist of ‘state capitalism’.” But the kind of cheap academic sleight of hand Saccarelli deploys here would send a shiver down his spine if it were applied to Gramsci or Trotsky. For instance, he lumps together “C L R James, Raya Dunayevskaya, James Burnham, Tony Cliff, Alex Callinicos, Anton Ciliga, Milovan Djilas, Robert Brenner, Sidney Hook, Cornelius Castoriadis and Max Eastman” in a single tendency—hinting that some of this group “openly sided with Western imperialism”.

Rather than engaging with Cliff’s argument, Saccarelli simply asserts Trotsky’s position—that the Soviet Union remained a degenerated workers’ state and that it should be defended against the Western imperialist powers. This is doctrinarism of the worst kind. Trotsky’s provisional and evolving account of Stalinism was brilliant. But by the end of the Second World War it was clear to some that the analysis had been pushed to breaking point. For instance, if “workers’ states” almost identical to the Soviet Union could be established in Eastern Europe by military means, what was the point of workers’ revolution?

Cliff’s theory was an attempt to defend the notion of revolution as a process that took place from the bottom up, creating new organs of workers’ democracy. Its goal was not to undermine Trotsky, but to defend and extend his life’s guiding principle—that the emancipation of the proletariat must be the act of the proletariat itself. Saccarelli’s failure to take this seriously mars what would otherwise be a useful book.