80th Anniversary of the Assassination of Leon Trotsky: The Lessons for Africa and Nigeria
By Kola Ibrahim
On 20th August, 1940, Leon Trotsky, the co-leader with Vladimir Lenin of the Russian October 1917 Revolution, was murdered in Cocoayan, Mexico by Ramon Mercader, a Stalinist agent who disguised himself as a follower of Trotsky. This event marked a special mention in the working class movement globally, as Trotsky, after Lenin’s death, contributed majorly to the development of the ideas of Marxism and working class liberation. Indeed, the third world countries and especially Nigeria have a lot to gain in terms of ideas and methods of revolutionary change, from the enormous work of Leon Trotsky. In spite of the brutal and lethal terror of Stalin’s bureaucratic clique against Leon Trotsky, and his demonization by capitalist pundits and media, the ideas represented by Trotsky continue to influence working class movement globally.
Who is Trotsky?
Leon Trotsky, born in 1879 in Ukraine, was the leader, alongside V.I Lenin, of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. He was the chair of the St Petersburg Soviet (Workers’ Revolutionary Council) during the 1905 revolution in Russia. He was exiled into Siberia, for the second time, after the revolution was defeated by Tsar Regime in Russia. It was in this exile that he developed one of the most important ideas, the theory of permanent revolution.
What is Permanent Revolution?
One of the debates that had ensued among the leaders of the Russian labour and Marxist movement was the role of the working class and capitalist class in the development of Russia. It was generally believed that Russia would follow the path of first carrying out the bourgeois (capitalist) revolution and accomplish all its basic tasks, such as development of capitalist democracy and parliamentarianism, the national question resolution and expansion of industry. All of these were lacking in the pre-revolutionary Russia, as the country was still a mismatch of rising capitalism and deep-rooted feudalism and landlordism. It was hoped that Russia needed to have the kind of bourgeois revolutions that ushered in capitalist development as witnessed in advanced European countries like France and Britain. It was hoped that the working class, whose population was very minimal in Russia as at that time, would have become numerically stronger under a strong capitalist system, and be able to then lead a socialist revolution, which was put in unforeseeable future. In practice this theory meant that Marxists would have to work with the bourgeois class, and effectively subjugate the working class independent movement to the bourgeois class political leadership and not challenge its rule.
However, unlike what was obtainable in other European countries where the bourgeois classes were independent of the feudalist system and the aristocracy (that then controlled the lands, agriculture and political authority), the Russian capitalists (bourgeois class) were tied directly to the feudalist system and feared the working class. While the bourgeois classes of the pre-capitalist European countries, had little interests in the feudalist system and had to wage huge class war, mobilising the growing working class and peasants behind them, against the feudalist system before their interests could be won, the capitalist class in pre-revolutionary Russia had investments in the land, while the feudal lords also invested in the industry, including in foreign businesses operating in Russia and other European countries. This meant that the economic policies of the aristocracy, represented by the Tsarist regime, accommodated, although not fully but to some extent, the interests of the bourgeois class.
At the same time the Russian capitalists, as late developers, were entering into a world market already dominated by imperialist powers like Britain, Germany, the US and France. Therefore, the bourgeois class was tied to the Russian feudalist ruling class and the European capitalist class as a junior partner. But a feature of Russia’s late capitalist development was that the working class, although a minority in society, was concentrated in some large modern workplaces, an illustration of the combined and uneven development that can take place in semi-colonial, colonial and ex-colonial countries. On this basis, the working class could and would not have subjugated their destiny to that of the reactionary bourgeois class that lack the ability to carry out its own revolution. The result was that the Russian bourgeoisie when faced with a threat from the working class formed a counter-revolutionary alliance with the old aristocracy and feudals.
Consequently, in a country like Russia, the working class is the only destined class that would lead both bourgeois revolution and socialist revolution. The bourgeois revolution is tied to the socialist revolution, as working class, being the most revolutionary class cannot hand over the rein of power to the reactionary bourgeois class, having carried out the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. They will have to move to building a socialist society simultaneously. This is how to make the revolution permanent without reverting the progress made from the bourgeois revolution. Trotsky also argued that the leadership of such a revolution should be tied to the working class, which though was still numerically small, but had the experience, discipline and social power to lead the revolution.
This reality was borne out in Russia in 1917 during the first revolution in February 1917. Then, the tsarist regime, which had been greatly discredited and exhausted by its involvement in the First World War, was swept away by flood of revolts of the working class, peasants, soldiers and sailors. However, this revolution was handed over to the capitalist class with the help of a section of the social democracy (RSDLP), the Mensheviks, who still believed that a revolution in Russia would have to first establish capitalist rule, while working towards a socialist revolution later. The new government formed out of the revolution could not address the least of the demands of the working people, including exiting from the War.
By April, Lenin, through the April Theses, had come into the same conclusion with Trotsky. Also, Trotsky, who had formerly held to the idea that the organizational differences that led to split of the Bolsheviks (majority) of the RSDLP led by Lenin, was not fundamental to the ideas of Marxism, had to agree with Lenin that politically reunification with the Mensheviks, something that happened during the 1905 Russian revolution, was impossible if a successful socialist revolution was to take place. These ideological clarifications and corrections (of both Lenin and Trotsky), led to the emergence of a strong leadership of the Bolsheviks towards the October Revolution. By October, the Kerensky government had become weak and discredited, while the Bolsheviks, on the basis of aligning with aroused working class and sailors had become the unofficial leadership of the revolution. It took sailors’ and workers’ revolts across the country to bring the Kerensky government down, and establish a Bolshevik-led workers’ government through the October Revolution in 1917.
Trotsky in the revolutionary Russia
Trotsky then moved on to play an important role in the revolutionary government of the communists. The Soviet government was confronted with ending Russia’s participation in the First World War, and subsequently confronted with the invasion of twenty-one armies from the imperialist countries wanting to suffocate the revolution and bring back the old era. Trotsky, the War Commissar, established one of the strongest mass-based armies in the world, the Red Army, which was able to defeat the imperialist armies. The Red Army was also able to defeat the White Army of the aristocracy, capitalists and reactionary peasants that organized a civil war against the Soviet state, after the defeat of the imperialist armies. The Soviet government also began the process of rebuilding the economy from scratch, and Trotsky played a leading role in this.
From their beginnings the Bolsheviks, along with Trotsky, based themselves on an internationalist perspective and in 1917 hoped that the Russian revolution would not only end the First World War but also rapidly lead to the overthrow of capitalism in at least some of the key, advanced European countries. Such a development would have provided the basis to begin the transition towards a socialist society.
However, the various wars fought by the Soviet government, coupled with the failure of the European wide revolutions, especially the German revolutions of 1918 and 1923, weakened the nascent Soviet state. With a successful workers revolution in a place like Germany, the Russia Soviet government would have had a ready partner, that is, a workers state in more advanced material and social conditions, in building international socialist movement and solidarity across Europe and the world. The depletion of the ranks of the revolutionaries in the wars and failure to achieve revolution in Germany and other countries isolated Russia, enormously weakened its democratic functioning and led to the consolidation of an increasingly privileged clique around Joseph Stalin, who was more in the administrative function of the government and the party. Stalin had used his administrative position to rally a layer around him through favouritism and patronage.
The death of Lenin, the political leader, in 1924 after a series of strokes gave Stalin opportunity to consolidate the bureaucracy he was building. Trotsky, having been a co-leader with Lenin and the most qualified, politically, to lead the Soviet Union, became the immediate target of Stalin’s bureaucracy for liquidation. However other leading Bolsheviks were systematically purged in several show trials and persecutions as the bureaucracy sought to hold to power. The Stalinist bureaucracy relied on the backwardness of Russia to consolidate its rule, short-circuiting of democracy within the party and the government.
By 1927, Trotsky had been made a pariah by the Stalin clique. The initial basis for the attacks on Trotsky was because of his attempt to preserve the ideas of genuine socialism, arguing for a plan to industrialise Russia and his call for internationalization of the revolution. By this time, Stalin was only interested in maintaining his grip hold on the country, and came to see any international revolutionary movement as a threat, as this could have served as a positive example to Russian workers. Therefore, from the 1930s onwards, there was a conscious effort to undermine international revolutions, while the Communist International that should serve as the world party of the working class was reduced to a foreign policy outpost of Stalinist regime.
Stalinism destroyed internationalism
The first Chinese revolution of 1925-27 provided an opportunity to test the ideas of internationalism espoused by the Bolsheviks, and the theory of permanent revolution espoused by Trotsky. China, was more of a backward country with a limited working class base, but with huge revolutionary potential, having being plundered by the imperialisms of Europe, Japan and the US. Rather than rally round the Chinese communist party as the bastion of the revolution, the Stalinist regime in Russia directed the Chinese communists to join a deadly alliance with a ‘so-called’ progressive bourgeois political class organized within the Kuomintang. Then the Kuomintang was a rapidly growing nationalist movement opposed to grip of the imperialist powers in China but Stalin dropped criticism of the Kuomintang and failed to warn that if the bourgeois Kuomintang came to power they would turn against the working class. Very rapidly this is what happened and as the Kuomintang began to take power after 1925 they launched a virulent one-sided war against the communists, thus drowning the revolution in a sea of blood.
However, the event in China confirmed Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution as the bourgeois class in an underdeveloped China could not execute the bourgeois tasks of the country including the democratization of the country, solving the land question, and developing the productive forces. It also showed that subjugating the revolutionary power of the working class to the whims of the bourgeois class, under the guise of Popular Front, would only end in a fiasco for the working class movement. This was clearly depicted by the Chinese revolution of 1925-27. The event in China also showed the abandonment by Stalinist bureaucratic clique of cardinal idea of Bolshevism, which is the working class independent revolutionary actions to accomplish the tasks of bourgeois democracy and moving swiftly to socialism, a position that was clearly fought for by Lenin and Trotsky. It showed Stalin’s reactionary adoption of the Mensheviks’ Two-Stage revolution, all in a bid to protect the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia.
Trotsky’s major opposition to Stalin’s Chinese misadventure, among other actions to defend Bolshevism, led to his exile in 1928 by Stalin’s regime. Increasingly, the Stalinist bureaucracy had drowned many revolutionary movements of the working people, in many countries in sea of blood, through the horrible policies of ‘Two Stage’ theory and, after 1935, ‘Popular Front’ alliances, which tended to subjugate the revolutionary leadership of the working people to the whim of the so-called progressive bourgeois class. All of these have meant the derailment of the world socialist revolutions. While the Second (Socialist) International was derailed by the adoption of national chauvinism by various socialist parties, who rather than defend the socialist working class internationalism, supported their national bourgeois government during the First World War; the Third (Communist) International was shipwrecked by Stalinism, in an attempt to preserve the Stalinist bureaucracy.
Stalinism and rise of Hitler
One of the greatest damages that Stalinism did to world working class movement was the derailment of the German revolution in the 1930s. Stalinism, having burnt its fingers in China through opportunistic policy, moved to ultra-leftism for a period. In Germany, facing the spectre of fascism, the Stalin grouping led the German communist party, KDP, to denounce all other parties, including the Social Democratic Party, SDP, as varieties of ‘fascism’ thereby undermining the building of united workers’ action against the fascist threat. This laid the basis for the rise of Hitler, and subsequently, the Second World War. Trotsky had, on the other hand, advocated a United Front policy of united action by SDP workers and KPD, to defeat the rising fascist ranks of Hitler and the Nazi. While the leadership of the SDP had been bankrupt and in many cases brutal against the communists, but as argued by Trotsky, they still had a huge mass working class membership and influence within the trade union movement, given the history of the party as a traditional party of the working class. It was better for the KDP to build a rank and file movement that would isolate the leadership of the SDP, and defeat rising fascism. Ironically, the Stalinist regime, which had earlier in the mid-1920s supported alliances with various ‘lefts’ and in China a section of the capitalist class, now came with the policy that every party was some variety of fascism. Thus in Germany they tagged the SDP as ‘social fascists’, and in so doing the Stalinist regime was tagging the ranks of millions of SDP workers along with their murderous leaders, effectively undermined any united action and thus left the millions of workers who wanted to fight fascism in the lurch.
This policy of Stalin, transmitted through the Communist International to the KDP, allowed the Nazis to mobilise the lumpen-proletariat against the working class, who though were prepared to fight fascism, but left disarmed and divided.
When the spectre of a new World War was staring the working class in the face, Stalin was busy in 1939 signing peace accord with Hitler, hoping that the mad Hitler would not attack Soviet Union. As Trotsky rightly noted, Hitler only respected the accord in the breaches, launching attack on virtually all European nations, including Soviet Union. Of course, Hitler’s war on all fronts became his undoing. But, the hypnotizing of working class with opportunistic accord, meant Stalin sacrificing millions of lives of workers to fight for ‘fatherland’ in the Second World War while strengthening the capitalist rule in most European countries. While irreconcilable socio-economic crisis of capitalism laid the basis for the Second World War, the rotten role of Stalinism in beheading international revolutions, laid the basis for mass slaughter of millions of working people, and allowed capitalism to recover.
While Trotsky did not foresee the strengthening of Stalinism in the World War, he correctly foresaw the collapse of the Stalinism, but was also hopeful of a political revolution to dislodge Stalinism and establish genuine working class democracy. Trotsky made this prognosis at a time when the Soviet Union economy was expanding exponentially as a result of the huge gains derived from the nationalized and planned economy.
Unfortunately, this prognosis was confirmed in the other way. By late 1980s, Stalinism had reached its peak, and was becoming a fetter for further development of the society, not only in the Soviet Union, but also in other planned eastern European economies. The huge productive capacity of the Soviet economy was being wasted through undemocratic planning, lack of internationalization of the socialist revolution, and diversion of huge productive capacity to the war machine.
All of these, coupled with stifling democratic spaces, led to revolt from one country to the other in Eastern Europe, culminating in the political uprising in the Soviet Union in 1990-1991. However, these uprisings, despite demanding political reform, were hijacked by the pro-capitalist layers, already emerging in these countries, to restore capitalism in the Soviet Union and other eastern European planned economies. This is a product of long decades of destruction of working class organizations. Restoration of capitalism in these countries only led to a mass collapse of social and economic gains in these countries.
Trotsky’s relevance today
Having suffered serial attacks from Stalinist regime to him and his family, leading to death of his children, and being denied Asylum by many countries, Trotsky finally settled in Cocoayan, Mexico. But, still, Stalin was not convenient seeing Trotsky defending the genuine ideas of Marxism. Thus on 20 August, 1940, Stalin’s agent, Ramon Mercader, murdered Trotsky with a pick axe to the brain behind the modern working class movement.
Trotsky’s life represents an embodiment of the ideas for working class movement today. Aside from fighting assiduously against Stalinism and the distortion and falsification of genuine ideas of Marxism, Trotsky’s writings also provided vital ideas on adaptation of Marxism for strategies in different historical situations and political development.
For instance, while Trotsky opposed the idea of subjugating working class independent political leadership to the capitalist class, he however advocated the need of German communists to face towards the Social Democratic party – despite its bankrupt pro-capitalist leadership – and mobilise its rank and file through factory and community mobilization against fascism, in order to expose the leadership of the social democracy, defeat fascism and win millions of working people under the SDP to communism. Indeed, Trotsky’s foremost work on fascism and how to defeat it, remains a masterpiece of all time. His role as a leader and strategist for one of the world most successful armies, the Red Army, showed Trotsky as not just a theorist, but a practical mobiliser and organizer.
Permanent Revolution today
However, the idea of Permanent Revolution still has huge importance for us in Africa and Nigeria. While theory of Permanent Revolution was made at a time when Russian capitalism was still in its infancy, the current level of development of capitalism in Africa, even when elements of feudalism still exist, indeed shows the correctness of Trotsky’s idea of permanence of the revolution. The working class has grown in numerical and social strength, yet capitalism has been unable to solve basic tasks vis-à-vis resolving the national question, developing productive capacity, solving land problem and democratic tasks.
While Africa came into the orbit of capitalism as a latecomer, and became subjugated by colonialism, imperialism and neocolonialism, the national bourgeois classes have become economically tied to the apron string of global imperialism, and are too weak to confront imperialism, and build a national capitalism. Indeed they fear the working class and poor much more than imperialism. On this basis, they have been unable to resolve the basic capitalist tasks highlighted above. Therefore, the central task is on the working class, which unlike the days of the pre-revolutionary Russia or pre-independence Africa, have become a powerful force numerically, socially, economically and organizationally.
With the huge resources (human and material), technological and scientific development and industrial capacity, not only in Africa, but globally, the working class has the capacity to not only resolve capitalist tasks, but also move simultaneously to socialist tasks. The coronavirus pandemic has shown the deeper interconnectedness of social, economic and political structures of the world. It also shows the ominous and dangerous signs for humanity should capitalism continue to rule the world. But the positive side is that the working class still has strong organizations, and they are prepared to rise. From one country to the other, to different degrees, the working class is rising. The task is to firm these movements up with clear revolutionary socialist ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and those which the Fourth International was founded upon and which the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) applies today.