David North
The Russian Revolution and the Unfinished Twentieth Century

Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the Twentieth Century: A Reply to Professor Eric Hobsbawm

This is the text of a lecture delivered at a Socialist Equality Party Summer School on January 3, 1998 in Sydney, Australia.


A year and a half ago, I was privileged to attend the lectures given by Professor Vadim Rogovin in Australia. At the conclusion of the second lecture in Melbourne, I had a very interesting discussion with a great friend and supporter of the movement on the role of Leon Trotsky. In the course of that discussion a number of ideas occurred to me which I discussed with her. She said she hoped that one day I would have a chance to elaborate these ideas in a lecture of my own. I said that I looked forward to that opportunity.

Unfortunately, that friend, Judy Tenenbaum, the mother of Linda Tenenbaum who is chairing this International Summer School, died early last year. It was, for all of us who knew her, a great loss. I would therefore like to dedicate this lecture to her memory. It is, from my standpoint, a responsibility and a debt that I very gladly repay to someone who always welcomed me with great warmth when I came to Australia and had a chance to visit her.

* * *

The loss of optimism

In 1899, Franz Mehring, the great Marxist theoretician of German Social Democracy, wrote that while the nineteenth century had been one of hope, the twentieth would be that of revolutionary fulfillment. Mehring allowed that the march of historical progress might proceed along paths more complex than expected, and that there existed no prophet who could predict the future with absolute certainty. “But,” he proclaimed, “with a joyous courage and proud self-confidence the class-conscious proletariat crosses over the threshold of the twentieth century.”

Mehring’s words expressed the widespread optimism that was felt throughout the socialist movement on the eve of the twentieth century. He spoke for a movement that believed passionately in the historical mission of socialism. Hardly more than fifty years had passed since Marx and Engels had written the Communist Manifesto. Only forty years before, Marx had lived in London as an impoverished and isolated revolutionary exile. And just twenty years before, Bismarck had illegalized most socialist activity in Germany. But as the nineteenth century drew to a close, the Social Democratic Party had survived the anti-Socialist laws to become the largest political party in the country. Moreover, beyond the borders of Germany, socialism had become a mighty international movement, among whose followers were to be found innumerable men and women of extraordinary courage, vision and, not infrequently, real genius.

The optimism to which the socialists gave revolutionary expression was felt throughout society, including among the bourgeoisie and cultured layers of the middle class. In his memoirs written after the outbreak of World War II, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig recalled, as one might a dear departed friend, the confidence which prevailed at the turn of the century:

In its liberal idealism the nineteenth century had been truly convinced that it was on the straight and unmistakable path to the best of all possible worlds. One looked with contempt upon earlier epochs—with their wars, famines and revolts—as a time when people were immature and insufficiently enlightened … this belief in an uninterrupted, unstoppable “progress” had for this Age the power of a religion; one believed in “progress” more than one did in the Bible, and this gospel seemed to be utterly substantiated by the daily wonders produced by science and technology. [1]

Very little of this faith has survived the traumas of the twentieth century, which at times has seemed to be the graveyard of all man’s hopes. In the terrible light of all that has occurred—the two world wars, the innumerable regional bloodbaths, failed revolutions, and the Holocaust—the optimism of the last years of the nineteenth century has come to be seen as an expression of a naïve faith in human reason and an unjustified belief in progress.

There is little sense, as we approach the new millennium, that the future will see radical improvements in the human condition. At most, there is an uneasy and fragile hope that in the twenty-first century man will be spared the horrors of the last one. It is a sad fact that this century’s imminent demise arouses, more than anything else, a sense of relief, as if a particularly rough and unpleasant journey is finally coming to an end.

It is not hard to imagine the themes that will predominate in the fin-de-siècle retrospectives which will soon bombard us: the twentieth century as the century of unimaginable horrors, of mass murder and of totalitarian bestiality. It is undeniable that these descriptions are, to a certain degree, appropriate. But they can, through misuse and overuse, assume the character of platitudes. In the hands of the media these phrases are transformed into sound bites that serve to deaden consciousness, rather than enlighten it. Judging from what has already appeared on the subject, one can predict that the violence and tragedies of the twentieth century will be invoked to demonstrate the destructive role of all “ideology”—especially Marxism—and thereby substantiate the futility of any revolutionary critique of the existing social order.

This century has witnessed the most gigantic upheavals in world history. Never before had the masses been active on such a dramatic scale, and with such a high degree of consciousness. Conversely, never had force and violence been employed with such ruthlessness to suppress revolutionary mass movements. The moralists of the bourgeois media generally fail to note that the worst crimes were those committed directly (as in Germany and Spain) or indirectly (as in the Soviet Union) in defense of the world capitalist system.

There has been no shortage of tragedy in the twentieth century. But the tragedies are an expression of the immensity of the historical tasks undertaken. For the first time humanity placed on its agenda, as a practical task, the abolition of class society. Man sought to bring the prehistory of the human race to an end. The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 represented, notwithstanding the subsequent fate of the Soviet Union, an ineradicable milestone in man’s historical progress. However unfashionable such “deterministic” conceptions may be at the present time, we believe that the most powerful tendencies of the law-governed development of man as a social being found a necessary, if only anticipatory, expression in the October Revolution. A renewed effort to complete what was begun in 1917 is, we are convinced, inevitable.

The paramount political and intellectual task of our time must be a study of October 1917—the first proletarian socialist revolution—and its aftermath, not only in Soviet Russia, but throughout the world. This, in its totality, represents the most critical element within the corpus of strategic historical experiences from which Marxists must extract the theoretical and practical lessons that will guide the working class in the twenty-first century. A serious discussion of the prospects for socialism—and, therefore, of the future of mankind—must involve an examination of the October Revolution. This revolution can be supported or opposed, but it cannot be ignored. The answers one gives to the problems of the present day are inseparably linked to one’s assessment of the October Revolution, its aftermath, fate, and legacy.

If the October Revolution was doomed to failure; if the Bolshevik seizure of power was, virtually from the start, a fatal enterprise; if Stalinism was the unavoidable outcome of Bolshevism; if the crimes of the Stalinist era flowed from the very concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”; if the final breakdown of the Soviet Union testifies to the bankruptcy of socialist economics, then Marxism, it must be confessed, has suffered a devastating political, intellectual and moral shipwreck. This is, at the present time, the dominant view among university academicians. If, on the other hand, the October Revolution realistically contained within it other possibilities; if Stalinism was not the outcome of Bolshevism, but its antithesis; and if the rise of Stalinism was, in fact, opposed by Marxists, then the historical situation of revolutionary socialism is very different.

The International Committee of the Fourth International upholds the second position. This necessarily brings us into conflict not only with the outright and unabashed defenders of reaction, but also with the mood of skepticism, demoralization and political renunciation that is commonly found among so many who, at least until recently, considered themselves socialists.

Among those who were influenced by Stalinism, the collapse of the Soviet Union—an event they had utterly failed to foresee—has radically changed their attitude toward the October Revolution and its place in history. Reaction, as Leon Trotsky once noted, not only conquers, it also convinces. Many long-time friends of the Soviet Union, or, perhaps more precisely, of the Soviet bureaucracy, who professed great admiration for Lenin and the “Great October Revolution”—and thought of themselves as very progressive people for doing so—now look upon the October Revolution as a disaster that should not have happened. The seizure of power was a terrible mistake. If there is any lesson to be drawn from October 1917 and its aftermath, it is that the entire revolutionary socialist project, as envisaged by Marx and implemented by Lenin, has been tragically and irrevocably refuted.

This is the perspective that emerges from a book by the British historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who was for many years a member of the Communist Party. Entitled On History, it consists of various essays and lectures he has written over the last quarter century. While the writings cover a wide range of topics, the dominant theme of this volume is the historical significance of the October Revolution.

As I will have many harsh things to say about Professor Hobsbawm’s book, allow me to preface my remarks by stating quite clearly that in the course of his long professional career as a historian he has written many valuable scholarly works. The volumes he devoted to the French Revolution and the development of capitalism in the nineteenth century were thoughtful and sensitive studies. A more recent book, a critical analysis of the role of nationalism and the nation state, offered many worthwhile and timely insights.

However, the subject of the Russian Revolution is dangerous territory for Professor Hobsbawm, for in this field his scholarship is compromised by his politics. Hobsbawm once confessed that as a member of the CPGB he had avoided writing about the Russian Revolution and the twentieth century, because the political line of his party would have prevented him from being entirely truthful. Why he chose to remain a member of a party that would have compelled him to tell lies is a question to which he has never given a convincing answer. It would have been best for him, and no loss to the writing of history, had he continued to limit himself to events before 1900.

Counterfactual history

The most important document in Hobsbawm’s book is a lecture that he delivered in December 1996, entitled “Can We Write the History of the Russian Revolution?”

In opening the lecture, Professor Hobsbawm makes a valid point: “[T]he most burning debates about twentieth-century Russian history have not been about what happened, but about what might have happened.” [2] Discussion of the Soviet Union, he notes, thus raises the problem of “counterfactual” history—that is, in considering a particular historical situation, to what extent is it possible to make credible judgments about what did not happen, or about what might have happened. Hobsbawm is correct when he observes that discussion of Soviet history raises innumerable counterfactual questions. Of all the counterfactual questions that might be asked about it, the most important is whether the Russian Revolution could have followed a substantially different path from that which led to the Stalinist dictatorship.

Though writing as one who is sympathetic to the Revolution, who maintains that the policies of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party proceeded from what they perceived to be the hard realities of the existing political situation in 1917, and that they rose to power on a powerful, even irresistible wave of popular support, Hobsbawm ultimately concludes that there is no basis for arguing that the Revolution could have turned out substantially different than it actually did.

In contrast to Richard Pipes, for whom the October Revolution was a sinister conspiracy imposed upon the Russian people by ruthless socialist ideologues, Hobsbawm recognizes the historical processes that were at work in the Revolution. However, he fails to offer any substantial assessment of the role of the subjective factor—of parties, policies, political leaders, mass consciousness, etc.—in the historical process. Hobsbawm, as a serious historian, does know that the subjective factor exists and exerts an influence on the outcome of events. But what he has to say about the relation between the objective and subjective factors is confused, inconsistent, inexact and vague. He acknowledges, in writing about Lenin and Stalin, that “Without the personal input of these single men, the history of the Russian Revolution would certainly have been very different.” [3] Yet he fails to say anything very definite about what in that history would have been different.

Hobsbawm would not deny that Lenin played an important role in the Russian Revolution. But he is very reluctant to consider counterfactuals—alternatives—in a historical scenario where Lenin is not included. Had Lenin not made it back to Russia from Switzerland in 1917, there is not much more one can say, writes Hobsbawm, other than that things might have, or might not have, turned out very differently. “And you can’t get any further, except into fiction.” [4]

In another passage in his lecture, referring to the historical role of Stalin, Hobsbawm states that one

can argue quite plausibly that there was room for more or less harshness in the project of very rapid industrialization by Soviet state planning, but if the USSR was committed to such a project then, however great the genuine commitment of millions to it, it was going to require a good deal of coercion, even if the USSR had been led by someone less utterly ruthless and cruel than Stalin. [5]

In both passages, the underlying conception is that the subjective element cannot assume any decisive significance. This line of argument, in a lecture devoted to the consideration of historical alternatives for the Russian Revolution, becomes an outright apology for Stalinism. Hobsbawm argues as follows: the Bolshevik Party seized power in 1917 in the hope that a revolution in Germany, which Lenin believed to be imminent, would come to the rescue of Soviet Russia. This was a disastrous political miscalculation. Whatever Lenin’s beliefs to the contrary, there were no serious prospects for a German revolution at the end of the World War. As for the claim that the German working class was betrayed by the Social Democratic leaders in 1918, Hobsbawm dismisses that as a myth. “A German October revolution, or anything like it, was not seriously on and therefore didn’t have to be betrayed.” [6]

This judgment tells us more about Hobsbawm’s historical pessimism than it does about the conditions that existed in Germany in 1923. He simply discounts the possibility that a revolution might have succeeded in Germany without offering any examination of the actual political situation that existed in that country. There are valuable studies of the “German October” that argue persuasively that the outcome of the extreme crisis existing in Germany in the autumn of 1923 depended on the actions of the Communist Party. This was the argument made by Trotsky in 1924 in the aftermath of the political fiasco caused by the CP’s decision, at the last minute, to call off a planned insurrection. [7]

At a theoretical level, Hobsbawm’s mistake flows from a fatalistic indifference to the impact of subjective politics on the course of events. I will cite a passage that sums up Hobsbawm’s argument and which shows how his one-sided approach turns into an apology for Stalinism. As there was no chance for a German version of October 1917, “The Russian Revolution was destined to build socialism in one backward and soon utterly ruined country…” (emphasis added). [8] Thus, the Bolsheviks had seized political power in 1917 “with an obviously unrealistic programme of socialist revolution…” [9] Here, by the way, Hobsbawm appears to contradict himself by acknowledging the decisive role of the subjective factor . That is, he assigns devastating historical consequences to Lenin’s mistake. Lenin, however sincere his beliefs and honorable his intentions, gambled and failed. Socialism in one country was the result. “History must start from what happened,” declares Hobsbawm. “The rest is speculation.” [10]

This is a simplistic conception, for “what happened”—if taken as nothing more than what was reported in the newspapers of the day—is certainly only a small part of the historical process. After all, history must concern itself not simply with “what happened,” but also—and this is far more important—why one or another thing happened or did not happen, and what might have happened. The moment one considers an event—i.e. “what happened”—one is compelled to consider process and context. Yes, in 1924 the Soviet Union adopted the policy of “socialism in one country.” That “happened.” But the opposition to “socialism in one country” also “happened.” The conflict between the Stalinist bureaucracy and the Left Opposition, about which Hobsbawm says not one word, “happened.” Inasmuch as he deliberately excludes, or dismisses as unimportant, the forces of opposition which sought to impart to the policies of the Soviet Union a different direction, his definition of “what happened” consists of nothing more than a one-sided, one-dimensional, pragmatic and vulgar simplification of a very complex historical reality. For Hobsbawm, starting from “what happened” simply means starting, and ending, with “who won.”

But even the most conscientious narrator of historical events can only deal with a small portion of “what happened.” The study and writing of history always involves a significant degree of selection and specialization. This selection and specialization, however, should at least be true to the historical process. It should draw together the main threads from which the historical process was woven. After all, “what happened” may be just as well defined in terms of the policy options that were rejected as by those that were implemented. Hobsbawm proceeds, however, as if the policies advanced by Trotsky ceased to be of real historical interest once they were rejected by the Communist Party and he was expelled and exiled.

If one delves beneath the academician’s elegant prose, one is left with a mundane and unidirectional approach to history. “Stalin won,” Hobsbawm is telling us, “and there is really no point considering what might have happened if he hadn’t.” To go beyond “what happened”—that is, to examine the historical process in the full range of its concrete possibilities—is mere speculation, a departure from historical reality and a flight toward insupportable judgments and self-satisfying illusions.

But if we include in “what happened” the contradictory and conflicting elements in the historical process, the gulf between “what happened” and “what did not happen” is not quite the speculative abyss suggested by Hobsbawm. After all, a fuller and more complete study of the historical process would convert at least a portion of “what did not happen” into “what might have happened.”

To consider “what might have happened” on the basis of a study of the alternatives available to those making decisions is not merely empty speculation. If we exclude “what might have happened” from a consideration of history, then there would really be no reason to study history at all. History should, after all, teach us something.

During the first half of the twentieth century the international bourgeoisie experienced not a few major catastrophes. It made a careful study of these experiences and learned something from them. John Maynard Keynes was a bitter critic of the peace treaties that followed the First World War. Chastened by the disasters which flowed from Versailles, the bourgeoisie made the conceptions of Keynes the basis of its post-World War II policies.

Of course, there is a limit beyond which the consideration of historical alternatives—“the road not taken”—becomes unacceptably speculative. Also, from a methodological standpoint, the consideration of alternatives may underestimate, or even ignore, other factors that may have significantly reduced the possibility of historical evolution assuming a form substantially different from what actually occurred. Marxists, certainly, have made valid criticisms of precisely such illegitimate speculative approaches to the study of history.

Objective and subjective factors in history

This is not the sort of cautionary and valid objection that Hobsbawm is making. Rather, in his consideration of the history of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, he adopts an ultra-deterministic, super-objectivist and fatalistic approach: there were no plausible alternatives to “what happened.” This is justified on the basis of a simplistic identification of the processes of social revolution with those of nature.

But at this stage we must leave speculation and return to the actual situation of a Russia in revolution. Great mass revolutions erupting from below—and Russia in 1917 was probably the most awesome example of such a revolution in history—are in some sense “natural phenomena.” They are like earthquakes and giant floods, especially when, as in Russia, the superstructure of state and national institutions has virtually disintegrated. They are to a large extent uncontrollable. [11]

There is one basic difference between earthquakes and floods, on the one hand, and revolutions, on the other. In neither the movement of tectonic plates nor rivers is thought involved. The earth does not decide to rumble nor does a river weigh the consequences of overflowing its banks. In social revolutions, however, consciousness is an immense factor. [12] Revolution involves the action of thinking human beings. From the revolutionary who has devoted his entire life to its preparation, to the simple worker who has decided that the conditions of life have become so intolerable that he must fight the existing order, social revolution is a conscious act. However powerful the “purely” objective, i.e. economic, technological, etc., forces that underlie the social eruption—and in society there are no phenomena that are “purely objective,” because every event involves the activity of human subjects—a revolutionary situation must signify that the objective impulses have gained access to the human mind and have been translated into complex forms of political thought. The comparison of social revolutions to various destructive natural phenomena, while valid in a certain limited sense, is among the most misused of metaphors. Unless the difference between the acts of nature and the acts of man is indicated, the metaphor serves only to mystify, distort and falsify the historical process.

Hobsbawm writes:

We must stop thinking of the Russian Revolution in terms of the Bolsheviks’ or anyone else’s aims and intentions, their long-term strategy, and other Marxists’ critiques of their practice. [13]

If one were to accept Hobsbawm’s instructions, it would be simply impossible to provide a coherent narrative of, let alone understand, the Russian Revolution. They betray his inability to comprehend precisely that which comprises the most significant feature of historical development in the twentieth century: the unprecedented role of consciousness in the making of history. The emergence of mass socialist parties expressed a new historical phenomenon that only became possible through the interaction of two interrelated processes—the rise of the working class and the development of Marxism.

Even by the late nineteenth century, the program of social revolution was inscribed on the banner of political parties. Armed intellectually by Marx and Engels with an insight into the laws of social development, the leaders of the new socialist parties set out to prepare the working class for the anti-capitalist revolution in which it was destined to play the leading and decisive role.

Having acquired a scientifically-grounded insight into the laws of social development—and thus being able to interpret contemporaneously, to a degree hitherto impossible, the significance and implications of political events as they unfolded—the analyses, perspectives, strategies and programs of political organizations assumed an altogether unprecedented role in the historical process. History ceased to simply happen. It was anticipated, prepared for and, to an extent hitherto impossible, consciously directed. The generation of Marxists that entered into political activity in the closing years of the nineteenth century or the first years of the twentieth expected revolution as the consequence of socioeconomic contradictions that had been identified and analyzed. They conceived of their own, or their opponents’, political work in terms of its ultimate consequences for the revolution. Only in this context is it possible to understand why such overriding importance was attached in Marxist polemics to uncovering the class interests served by different policies and identifying the “class nature” of political tendencies.

The Russian Revolution revealed the objective significance of the aims, intentions, strategies and critiques of all the political parties and tendencies that were, in one way or another, active in Russia in the years before 1917. What the principal political actors did between April and October 1917, where they lined up in the decisive battles, was anticipated in the great theoretical and political struggles that took place during the previous two decades.

It sounds plausible to describe the Revolution as an uncontrollable catastrophe that rendered the plans of mice and men irrelevant. But if consciousness counts for so little, if the element of theoretical foresight is insignificant amidst the chaos of a revolutionary epoch, then how should one evaluate the work of Lenin and Trotsky, both prior to, during and especially after 1917?

In the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, the various factions of Russian Social Democracy sought to define the tasks of the working class in light of the experiences of that event. The answers they gave were to determine not only their own role in subsequent events, but also the future course of the Russian Revolution. Hobsbawm insists that “What Lenin aimed at—and in the last analysis Lenin got his way in the Party—was irrelevant.” [14]

But this claim is belied by the simple fact that without the reorientation of the Bolshevik Party in the spring of 1917 on the basis of Lenin’s “April Theses” — that is, the adoption of the strategic line previously formulated by Leon Trotsky—there would have been no seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. Revolutions are, indeed, mighty events; but policy and program—the products of consciousness—play within them a decisive role.

Hobsbawm seeks to minimize, to the very point of denying, the role of consciousness in the revolutionary process. Lenin, he writes, “could have no strategy or perspective beyond choosing, day by day, between the decisions needed for immediate survival and the ones which risked immediate disaster. Who could afford to consider the possible long-term consequences for the revolution of decisions which had to be taken now or else there would be an end to the revolution and no further consequences to consider?” [15]

This portrayal of Lenin as a vulgar realpolitiker, reacting pragmatically and intuitively to events as they arose, hardly makes sense even within the terms presented by Hobsbawm. The defense of the revolution required a comprehensive strategic conception, and its achievement depended upon a conscious insight into the class structure and dynamics of Russian society. Lenin and Trotsky were, quite obviously, very busy men during the period of revolution and civil war. But they did not stop thinking. A study of their writings—above all, Trotsky’s great manifestos and speeches prepared for the congresses of the Communist International—still provoke astonishment at the depth and breadth of their strategic vision. Of all the political forces operating in the maelstrom of revolution and civil war, only the Bolsheviks were able to formulate a strategic line that provided a unifying banner for tens of millions of people in a vast and culturally disparate country. As E.H. Carr has aptly noted, the success of the Bolsheviks in the civil war depended to no small extent upon the fact that Lenin’s genius was of a profoundly creative, rather than negatively destructive, character.

Hobsbawm’s belittling of the significance of the elements of political consciousness makes it all but impossible to understand how the Bolsheviks came to power and why they triumphed in the civil war. If political parties are merely at the mercy of history’s volcanic eruptions, it follows that the victory of the Bolsheviks was due either to their luck or their opponents’ misfortunes—depending on your point of view.

Hobsbawm’s fatalism

When applied to the post-revolutionary period, Hobsbawm’s position serves as an apology for Stalinism. Buffeted by uncontrollable historical forces to which it could respond only with desperate improvisations, the fate of Bolshevism was sealed by 1921. As Hobsbawm writes, “By this time its future course was more or less prescribed…” [16] In another essay which appears in the same volume, Hobsbawm expresses this view even more emphatically: “Unfortunately I can think of no realistic forecast which ought to have envisaged the long-term future of the USSR as very different from what it has actually become.” [17]

Thus, while the course of Soviet history might have developed along lines less cruel, the outcome of the historical process was basically decided by 1921. Stalin simply played out, though with excessive violence, the hand he had been dealt by the preceding course of development. Hobsbawm leaves us with a “left” variation of the standard reactionary thesis: that there could not have been an alternative to Stalinism. He does not agree that Stalinist totalitarianism was the inevitable product of Marxism itself. Rather, he argues that Stalinism arose inevitably and inexorably out of the conditions that confronted the Soviet Union after 1917. To speak of an alternative to what actually happened is to engage in mere speculation. Objective conditions did not permit an alternative. The policies of the regime might have been somewhat less cruel, but this would have only been a difference of degree, not of kind.

What are our differences with this assessment? After all, the Trotskyists have always insisted that the Stalinist degeneration of the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet state was, in the final analysis, the product of unfavorable conditions . These were, principally, the historic backwardness of Russia; the economic devastation produced by seven uninterrupted years of world war; revolution and civil war; and the protracted isolation of the Soviet state that resulted from the defeats suffered by the European, and especially the German, working class after World War I.

However, there is a critical difference between recognizing the material foundations of Stalinism and declaring that from those foundations there could only be one political outcome—the irreversible bureaucratic degeneration of the USSR and its ultimate collapse in 1991. One little thing is missing from this conception of Soviet history: the role of politics, of program, of the struggle of tendencies, of consciousness, and the significance of the decisions made by individuals, motivated by a greater or lesser degree of political insight into the historical process. History is transformed into an entirely abstract and super-deterministic process: everything is determined by blind and uncontrollable forces. History swept the Bolsheviks into power; and then swept them, if not out of power, then at least into a blind alley.

Hobsbawm has already told us that “We must stop thinking of the Russian Revolution in terms of the Bolsheviks’ or anyone else’s aims and intentions, their long-term strategy, and other Marxists’ critiques of their practice.” [18] What this really means is that there is no reason to pay any attention to the political struggles that raged within the Bolshevik Party during the 1920s. What Trotsky wrote about Stalinism, the criticisms he made of Soviet policy, the conflict between the long-term strategy he advanced and that of the Stalinist leadership is, as far as Hobsbawm is concerned, of very little importance. The fate of the USSR was already set in stone by 1921, and there was nothing that the Communist regime could do—regardless of who was in power—that would have made any fundamental difference. One suspects Hobsbawm believes that arguments to the contrary amount to little more than the pointless speculation of die-hard Trotskyists. It is therefore not surprising that his lecture makes absolutely no reference to the struggle of Trotsky and the Left Opposition against Stalinism. Indeed, in a 300-page book of essays and lectures whose central theme is the place of the October Revolution in the history of the twentieth century, Trotsky’s name appears only once.

Hobsbawm does not hold Marxism responsible for Stalinism. But if the Stalinist dictatorship was the only plausible outcome of the October Revolution, it would be hard to make the case that the Bolshevik seizure of power served the interests of the working class and the cause of historical progress. One is left with the conclusion—at which Hobsbawm strongly hints—that October 1917 was a dreadful mistake and it would probably have been far better if Kamenev, the opponent of the insurrection, rather than Lenin, had prevailed in the deliberations of the Bolshevik Party.

Hobsbawm’s argument not only calls into question the political legitimacy of the October Revolution; the validity of the entire socialist project is placed under a very dark cloud. It is hard to imagine that any social revolution would occur under conditions so perfect that its ultimate success was guaranteed. By its very nature, revolution—which is inconceivable without a massive dislocation and breakdown of the political and economic mechanisms of the existing order—is a leap into the unknown. The situation will be fraught with danger. It would be foolhardy, if not criminally irresponsible, for a political organization to summon the working class to a revolutionary insurrection if it did not believe in the possibility of mastering the situation, influencing its further development and subordinating it to the aims of its revolutionary program.

What reasonable basis is there, however, for such confidence if the lesson of October 1917 and its aftermath is that revolutionary parties are simply at the mercy of objective conditions; that they are merely hapless instruments of a historical process which compels them to carry out whatever orders they are given, no matter how terrible?

Thus, Hobsbawm provides not only an apology for Stalin—“objective conditions made him do it”—but also vindicates the classical liberal bourgeois democratic argument against revolution as an instrument of social change. But Hobsbawm’s position is based, first, on a false method, and, second, on a rather slipshod—I would like to avoid the word dishonest—treatment of facts. His fatalism has nothing in common with the method of historical materialism. Hobsbawm invokes objective conditions as if they were a set of marching orders, which leave parties and people no choice but to do as they are told. Such a conception is simplistic in the extreme.

The divisions which opened up in the Russian Communist Party after 1921 testify to the fact that the objective conditions generated a wide range of responses. How leaders of the party responded to the problems, and the tendencies that developed around these responses, reflected not only their different evaluations of the objective conditions, but also their relation to different and even mutually hostile social forces.

Stalin’s response to “objective conditions” tended more and more openly to reflect the social position and articulate the material interests of the growing state bureaucracy, whose personnel were recruited from the urban lower middle class. The policies of Trotsky and the Left Opposition, on the other hand, articulated in a highly conscious form the interests of the industrial proletariat. To the extent that the economic and social dislocation produced by the civil war seriously weakened this social force, which was the principal constituency for Marxist politics in the USSR, conditions for the development and implementation of socialist policies grew unfavorable.

These “unfavorable conditions” however, must not be considered as analogous to an uncontrollable meteorological phenomenon, but in concrete political terms—that is, as the expression of the struggle of antagonistic social forces. As the position of the industrial proletariat—decimated by the civil war—weakened, the Marxist leaders of the working class encountered increasingly ruthless and violent opposition from those elements within the party and state bureaucracy who considered the policies advanced by the Left Opposition threatening to what they perceived to be their material interests.

This was the substance of the political struggle that raged within the Communist Party and Communist International throughout the 1920s.

What if the Left Opposition had prevailed?

At this point I will make a series of statements that Professor Hobsbawm would regard as impermissibly speculative and beyond the pale of proper historical analysis:

First, had the Left Opposition prevailed in the struggle within the Russian Communist Party, the cause of international socialism would have been immeasurably strengthened. At the very least, the counterrevolutionary catastrophes of the 1930s—above all, the victory of German fascism—would probably have been avoided.

Second, with the victory of the Opposition the entire character of Soviet economic and political life would have developed along incomparably more progressive lines. The argument that the downward spiral of the USSR toward the totalitarian bestiality of the 1930s was pre-determined by uncontrollable “objective conditions” simply does not hold water. The very fact that “objective conditions” became increasingly unfavorable for the development of the USSR along socialist lines was, above all else, the political consequence of the defeat of Trotsky and the Left Opposition.

Third, and this point flows from the first two, the defeat of Trotsky and the Left Opposition set the stage for all the subsequent tragedies that were to befall the Soviet Union, the international working class and the socialist movement, and beneath whose shadow we still live today.
I wish to add a further point: No discussion on the fate of socialism in the twentieth century deserves to be taken seriously unless it considers, with the necessary care, the consequences of Trotsky’s defeat. It is necessary to consider not only “what happened” under Stalin; but also “what well might have happened” had Trotsky prevailed.

Is this an impossibly speculative venture? One must acknowledge that it is reasonable to ask whether such an enterprise is intellectually legitimate. Certainly, there is a danger that in dealing with counterfactuals we may find ourselves engaged in unjustified speculation and outright wishful thinking. In imagining alternative paths of historical development, we must not go beyond the range of possibilities that were actually available at the time. Also, we must retain a firm sense—based on a thorough study and comprehension of the economic foundations, technological level and class structure of the given society—of the limits within which the subjective activity of man, itself the product and expression of specific historically-formed conditions, could influence and alter that objectively-given environment.

Two historical digressions: England in 1529 and France in 1794

For example, a historian of the Tudor Age could—if he cared to—consider what might have happened had Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, given birth to a male heir. What effect would that have had on the development of England? Certain educated guesses are possible, but we would be unable to proceed very far before finding ourselves in terrain that is clearly of a highly speculative character. It is probably true that Catherine, had she produced a boy, and had that boy survived childhood, would not have found herself being sued for divorce by her libidinous husband. It is therefore possible, but by no means certain, that the remaining years of Henry’s reign would not have been, at least in terms of his personal life, quite as colorful as they turned out to be.

However, could we go on from there to conclude that England, having avoided a royal marital crisis, would have remained a Catholic country? That would certainly be a highly speculative and questionable proposition. The struggle over the divorce only brought to a head a political crisis that was deeply rooted in socioeconomic processes that were sweeping across Europe. The really interesting and critical question that must be answered when studying the reign of Henry VIII is precisely why what began as a not particularly unusual crisis of dynastic succession turned into a struggle between church and state with revolutionary consequences. Against this backdrop, the motivations of individuals—who were largely unaware of the historical dimensions and consequences of their actions—do not appear to be all that decisive.

Even if we move forward several centuries, to the epoch of the French Revolution, historical personalities are still responding with only a limited consciousness of the weight of the historical forces bearing down on them. There is, of course, a great difference between the historical consciousness of a Robespierre and that of a Henry VIII or even an Oliver Cromwell. By the late eighteenth century the conscious awareness of social forces and interests was certainly more acute than it could have been a century or two earlier. But the force of historical necessity had not yet been translated into the appropriate forms of scientific thought—an achievement that only became possible with the development of modern capitalism and the emergence of the working class. Thus, in each of the stages of the French Revolution, notwithstanding the brilliance of its leading personalities, events were shaped by the overwhelming force of historical necessity.

This does not mean that things might not have worked out differently. One can imagine any number of “counterfactuals” that might have altered the course of events. But given the level of social development and the still limited range of man’s insight into the underlying laws of historical development, those changes in the course of events would not have been introduced by the political actors themselves with anything approaching a clear understanding of the historical consequences of their actions.

In the France of 1794, there existed neither the objective means, nor, flowing from that, the corresponding level of scientific insight, to consciously determine—that is, to act with an understanding of the logic of socioeconomic processes—the course of historical development. Undoubtedly, the members of the Committee of Public Safety acted consciously, and with a not altogether unsubtle sense of the social forces active in the Revolution. Robespierre, for example, was certainly aware that Danton had powerful supporters among sections of the bourgeoisie. He sensed the danger that might flow from a confrontation with the Indulgents. But Robespierre could not be aware, in a modern sense, of the historical implications of his actions. The preconditions for the development of historical materialism had not yet matured, and the real forces which motivated historical behavior were still perceived and interpreted in various mystified ideological forms (i.e., Reason, the Rights of Man, Virtue, Fraternity).

The emergence of historical self-consciousness

Thus, any discussion of alternative historical outcomes for the French Revolution tends to veer rapidly toward hypotheses of a highly speculative character. Inasmuch as the leading personages could not foresee the historical consequences of their own actions, we can hardly claim with any degree of certainty that the victory of one faction of the Jacobins rather than another would have fundamentally changed the subsequent course of history, let alone state precisely how it would have been altered.

With the advent of Marxism the relation of man to his own history underwent a profound transformation. Man acquired the capacity to consciously interpret his thought and actions in socioeconomic terms, and, thereby, to precisely locate his own activity within a chain of historical causality.

This is why a consideration of alternative outcomes to the struggle inside the Russian Communist Party and the Communist International is not a hopelessly speculative enterprise. Here it is not the case, as it was in France 130 years earlier, of political factions groping in the dark, moved by socioeconomic forces of which they were unaware, defining and justifying their actions in largely idealistic terms.

Rather, Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition entered into struggle with an extraordinarily far-reaching understanding of the historical implications of the issues confronting the Soviet Union and the international socialist movement. In both his analysis of the domestic and international contradictions of the USSR and the warnings he directed to the Stalinists, Trotsky left no doubt as to the ultimate consequences of the growing authority of the bureaucracy and the false policies of the Soviet leadership.

“Does bureaucratism bear within it a danger of degeneration, or doesn’t it?” Trotsky asked in December 1923. “Anyone who denied it would be blind.” [19]

This was written in the opening round of the struggle against the emerging Stalinist regime. Even at that early stage Trotsky had already raised the possibility that “the progressive degeneration” of the Communist Party could become one of “the political paths by which the victory of the counterrevolution might come about…” [20]

However serious the danger, Trotsky argued that conscious political foresight based on a Marxist analysis provided the party with the possibility of overcoming the crisis:

If we set forth these hypotheses bluntly, it is of course not because we consider them historically probable (on the contrary, their probability is at a minimum), but because only such a way of putting the question makes possible a more correct and all-sided historical orientation and, consequently, the adoption of all possible preventive measures. The superiority of us Marxists is in distinguishing and grasping new tendencies and new dangers even when they are still only in an embryonic stage. [21]

In considering whether the victory of the Left Opposition would have significantly altered the course of Soviet and world history, we propose to deal concretely with three issues that were of fundamental significance in determining the fate of the USSR: 1) Soviet and inner-party democracy, 2) economic policy and 3) international policy.

It is noteworthy that virtually none of those political and intellectual tendencies that insist, in one form or another, that the Soviet Union was doomed from the outset—whether on account of the “fatal flaws” of Marxism or the impossible objective conditions confronting Bolshevism—ever attempt a concrete analysis of the policies advanced by the Left Opposition. Trotsky remains to this day “The Great Unmentionable” in Soviet history. On the rare occasions he is referred to, it is usually to misrepresent and falsify his work.

Both the silence and the lies represent in their own ways a form of tribute to the historical significance of Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism. All the claims that the demise of the USSR was inevitable, that the socialist revolution is by its very nature a utopian undertaking, that, therefore, the October Revolution led the Russian working class into a blind alley from which there could be no escape, that Marxism leads inevitably to totalitarianism, etc., are refuted by the historical record left by the Left Opposition. It clearly represented, in terms of the policies it advanced, a viable, theoretically acute and powerful political opposition to the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Inner-party democracy

Let us now proceed to the three issues that I have singled out. First of all, the question of Soviet and inner-party democracy: it is an historical fact, proven by the 1923 document that I have already cited, that Trotsky recognized at a very early stage of the struggle—even before the term Stalinism had entered into political usage—that the growth of bureaucratism and the demise of inner-party democracy posed a potentially mortal threat to Bolshevism and the survival of the Soviet regime. In countless documents, Trotsky and the Left Opposition insisted that the intelligent and correct formulation of Soviet policy, not to mention the political education of a Marxist cadre and the broadest layers of the working class, was inconceivable without a democratic regime within the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky wrote in 1923:

It is in contradictions and differences of opinion that the working out of the party’s public opinion inevitably takes place. To localize this process only within the apparatus, which is then charged to furnish the party with the fruit of its labors in the form of slogans, orders, etc., is to sterilize the party ideologically and politically. … the leading party bodies must heed the voices of the broad party masses and must not consider every criticism a manifestation of factionalism and thereby cause conscientious and disciplined party members to withdraw into closed circles and fall into factionalism. [22]

Trotsky rejected the self-serving claims of the apparatus that opposition to the decisions of the ruling bodies of the party was invariably the expression of the interests of hostile class forces:

It frequently happens that the party is able to resolve one and the same problem by different means, and differences arise as to which of these means is the better, the more expeditious, the more economical. These differences may, depending on the question, embrace considerable sections of the party, but that does not necessarily mean that you have there two class tendencies.

There is no doubt that we shall have not one but dozens of disagreements in the future, for our path is difficult and the political tasks as well as the economic questions of socialist organization will unfailingly engender differences of opinion and temporary groupings of opinion. The political verification of all the nuances of opinion by Marxist analysis will always be one of the most efficacious preventive measures for our party. But it is this concrete Marxist verification that must be resorted to, and not the stereotyped phrases which are the defense mechanism of bureaucratism. [23]

The nature of the party regime impacted directly on the tasks of socialist construction. By its very nature, as Trotsky explained on innumerable occasions, efficient economic planning requires the interested and democratic participation of the masses in the decision-making process. It is incompatible with bureaucratic fiat. Thus, even as Trotsky offered a farsighted evaluation of the contradictions of the Soviet economy and concrete proposals for their amelioration, he stressed that both the formulation and implementation of a correct economic policy depended upon a democratic party regime.

The importance of inner-party democracy was not simply one of abstract principle, nor was its practical significance limited to its direct impact on the field of economic policy. What was ultimately at stake in the struggle waged by Trotsky in defense of Soviet democracy was the fate of the entire heritage of socialist culture and revolutionary thought as it had developed in the international workers’ movement over the previous century. The bureaucracy dealt with Marxism as it did with Lenin’s corpse: it was mummified and made the object of ritualistic and semi-mystical incantations. After 1927 Marxism, for all intents and purposes, ceased to play any role whatsoever in the formulation of Soviet policy. The defeat of the Opposition sounded the death knell for the development of critical thought in virtually every sphere of intellectual and cultural activity.

Economic policy

I must at this point turn to the second issue—the economic policy of the Left Opposition. This is a vast subject that is not reducible to a few quotations. I will, however, offer several citations that at least indicate the profound difference between the Opposition’s approach to problems of Soviet economic development and that of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

The conflict between the Opposition and the Stalinists over economic policy centered on the most fundamental question of historical perspective: Was it possible for the Soviet Union to build socialism on the basis of its own national resources, or was the socialist development of the USSR dependent, in the final analysis, upon the victory of the proletarian revolution in the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe and North America? Until 1924 the unquestioned premise of Soviet policy—indeed, that which underlay the entire revolutionary project undertaken by the Bolsheviks in October 1917—was that the seizure of power in Russia was only “the first shot” of the world socialist revolution. A nationally self-contained socialist state, especially one based on a country as economically and culturally backward as Russia, could not be viable. Stalin’s introduction, in the autumn of 1924, of the “theory” of “socialism in one country”—which was not really a “theory” at all, but rather a crudely pragmatic response to the defeat of the German revolution during the previous year and the temporary decline of the revolutionary movement in Western Europe—ran counter to the internationalist orientation propounded by the Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky.

Professor Hobsbawm would not deny that the policy of “socialism in one country” was a major departure from the original vision of the October Revolution. However, he implies that this vision was not all too realistic inasmuch as the Russian Revolution was unavoidably “destined” to build, or at least attempt to build, socialism in one country. If pressed to defend this position, I suspect that Hobsbawm would be obliged to argue that while, in a general abstract sense, theoretical doctrine stood on the side of Trotsky, practical reality was firmly on Stalin’s side. Trotsky’s conception of world revolution made for compelling reading, but had little to offer in the actual context of the political and economic situation confronting the USSR in the mid-1920s. Thus, to claim that Trotskyist policies presented a real alternative to those adopted by Stalin is to indulge one’s own revolutionary illusions.

I cannot be sure that Hobsbawm would argue in precisely this way. I am, to some degree, engaging in “speculation.” But even if this is not quite the view of Hobsbawm, I have heard it expressed many times by bourgeois historians, not to mention out-and-out apologists for Stalinism.

The basic problem with this argument is that it proceeds from a deeply biased and stereotyped conception of Trotsky’s views and the nature of his differences with Stalin. It is much easier to dismiss Trotsky’s perspective if it is reduced to an impatient and romantic desire to storm the barricades of world capitalism, in contrast to Stalin’s more astute and sober preoccupation with the development of the Soviet Union, based on a realistic appraisal of the national resources at its disposal.

We cannot compel those who write on Soviet history to actually read what Trotsky wrote. However, those who study his articles and books with the seriousness they require—and Trotsky was, in my opinion, among the very greatest political thinkers and writers of the twentieth century—will discover that it was especially in his analyses of the contradictions and problems of Soviet economic development that Trotsky’s revolutionary internationalism found its most brilliant and subtle expression.

There is nothing in Trotsky’s writings that would support the claim that he believed Soviet economic policy should consist simply of waiting for the working class in Western Europe or the United States to seize power. In fact, the main premise of his treatment of Soviet economic problems was that the USSR had to work out policies that would enable it to survive and develop in a more or less protracted transitional era—that is, a period whose duration could not be predicted—during which the Soviet Union would exist within an international economic environment dominated by the capitalist system.

Notwithstanding its program of “socialism in one country,” the Stalinist bureaucracy through the 1920s still maintained, however inconsistently, the commitment of the USSR to international revolution. Trotsky’s chief criticism of this program, considered from the standpoint of economic development, was not that it categorically denied the importance, at least in the long run, of world revolution for the fate of the Soviet Union. Rather, he stressed that the nationalist orientation that underlay “socialism in one country” led to autarchic policies that dangerously underestimated the impact—direct and indirect—of world economy on the Soviet Union.

It may seem paradoxical that Trotsky, the great protagonist of world revolution, placed greater emphasis than any other Soviet leader of his time on the overriding importance of close economic links between the USSR and the world capitalist market. Soviet economic development, he insisted, required both access to the resources of the world market and the intelligent utilization of the international division of labor. The development of economic planning required at minimum a knowledge of competitive advantage and efficiencies at the international level. It served no rational economic purpose for the USSR to make a virtue of frittering away its own limited resources in a vain effort to duplicate on Soviet soil what it could obtain at far less cost on the world capitalist market. Trotsky wrote in 1927:

Resting our hope upon an isolated development of socialism and upon a rate of economic development independent of world economy distorts the whole outlook. It puts our planning leadership off the track, and offers no guiding threads for a correct regulation of our relations with world economy. We have no way of deciding what to manufacture ourselves and what to bring in from outside. A definite renunciation of the theory of an isolated socialist economy will mean, in the course of a few years, an incomparably more rational use of our resources, a swifter industrialization, and a more planful and powerful growth of our own machine construction. It will mean a swifter increase in the number of employed workers and a real lowering of prices—in a word, a genuine strengthening of the Soviet Union in the capitalist environment. [24]

Trotsky belonged to a generation of Russian Marxists who had utilized the opportunity provided by revolutionary exile to carefully observe and study the workings of the capitalist system in the advanced countries. They were familiar not only with the oft-described “horrors” of capitalism, but also with its positive achievements. The countless hours they had spent studying Das Kapital were enriched by many years of observing capital in action. Upon their return to Russia—and this applies especially to those who were among Trotsky’s closest associates during the years of exile—they brought with them a keen understanding of the complexities of modern economic organization. If political struggles had not invested the issue with such profoundly tragic implications, they would have dismissed as simply laughable the idea that Russia could somehow leap into socialism merely by nationalizing its own paltry means of production. Trotsky argued that a precondition for the development of the Soviet economy along socialist lines was its assimilation of the basic techniques of capitalist management, organization, accounting and production.

In this very brief overview of the contrast between the economic policies of Trotsky and those of Stalin, it is necessary to touch on the question of collectivization. As is well known, Soviet agriculture never fully recovered from the traumatic consequences of Stalin’s reckless and brutal collectivization of agriculture between 1929 and 1932. Clearly, a more rational approach to the problems of Soviet agriculture would have spared the USSR incalculable losses and endless agony. It is precisely in this area that the question of an alternative policy assumes historical significance, and that is why right-wing historians generally proceed as if none existed. Indeed, the claim is often made that collectivization arose out of Stalin’s adoption, in the late 1920s, of the Left Opposition’s program of rapid industrialization. In fact, Trotsky opposed and denounced the frenzied collectivization campaign launched by the Stalinists. Despite the pseudo-socialist demagogy that accompanied it, Trotsky warned that the policy, implemented with reckless disregard of the real productive capabilities of both industry and the countryside, proceeded from the same nationalistic and anti-Marxist conceptions of “socialism in one country” that underlay the previous failed economic programs of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

In a critique of Stalinist collectivization written in 1930, Trotsky acknowledged that he had previously advocated a more rapid tempo of industrialization, and the use of heavier taxation of wealthier sections of the peasantry (the kulaks) to provide resources for the development of heavy industry:

But we never regarded the resources for industrialization as inexhaustible. We never thought that its tempo could be regulated by the administrative whip alone. We have always advanced, as a basic condition for industrialization, the necessity for systematic improvement in the conditions of the working class. We have always considered collectivization dependent upon industrialization. We saw the socialist reconstruction of peasant economy only as a prospect of many years. We never closed our eyes to the inevitability of internal conflicts during the socialist reconstruction of a single nation. To remove contradictions in rural life is possible only by removing contradictions between the city and countryside. This can be realized only through the world revolution. We never demanded, therefore, the liquidation of classes within the scope of the five-year plan of Stalin and Krzhyzhanovsky.

… The question of the tempo of industrialization is not a matter of bureaucratic fancy, but of the life and culture of the masses.

Therefore the plan for building socialism cannot be issued as an a priori bureaucratic command. It must be worked out and corrected in the same way that the construction of socialism itself can only be realized, i.e., through broad soviet democracy. [25]

Trotsky reiterated the basis of his critique of Stalinist collectivization:

Again and again we decisively rejected the task of building a national socialist society “in the shortest possible time.” Collectivization and industrialization we bind by an unbreakable tie to the world revolution. The problems of our economy are decided in the final analysis on the international arena. [26]

In attempting to conceptualize how the victory of the Left Opposition might have altered the history of the Soviet Union, we do not claim that it is possible to provide an exact picture of how it might have evolved. It is no more possible to present a detailed hypothetical reconstruction of the past than it is to predict the future. The implementation of different policies after 1924 would have introduced into the historical equation a vast quantity of new political, social and economic variables which, in the complexity of their mutual interaction, may have altered the course of events in a manner entirely unanticipated by those who are engaged in a retrospective evaluation of alternatives. But due consideration to the principle of historical “uncertainty” does not mean that it is impossible to say anything convincing or intelligent about historical alternatives. There are very solid factual and theoretical grounds for concluding that the victory of the Left Opposition would have made highly probable a more rational, productive and humane evolution of the Soviet economy. Hobsbawm seeks to make light of this possibility by stating that industrialization was going to require “a good deal of coercion.” The only question was how much. But that, as the history of the USSR amply proves, is not a small question. The dialectical relation between quantity and quality should not be forgotten. There is a profound difference between high rates of taxation on the wealthiest strata of the peasantry and the physical “liquidation of the kulaks as a class.” Had the economic policy of the Opposition achieved nothing more than the avoidance of the horrors of Stalinist collectivization—and it is virtually inconceivable that it would have occurred had the Left Opposition triumphed—the USSR would have been spared a catastrophe, and all that flowed from it.

International strategy

Let us now turn to a consideration of the consequences of the defeat of Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition on the fate of the international working class and the world socialist movement. This international dimension is not included in Hobsbawm’s consideration of the counterfactual alternatives. Holding the position that the ultimate breakdown of the USSR flowed inexorably from the objective conditions with which it was confronted in 1921, Hobsbawm makes no effort to examine how the international policies pursued by the Stalinist regime actually impacted upon the evolution of the Soviet Union. He goes so far as to suggest that there existed little relation between the international and the domestic: “The Russian Revolution really has two interwoven histories: its impact on Russia and its impact on the world. We must not confuse the two.” [27]

Yet such a separation would make incomprehensible the phenomenon of Stalinism. The Stalinist regime arose on the basis of a Russian nationalist reaction against the proletarian socialist internationalism that was embodied in the Bolshevik government under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. The program of socialism in one country provided a banner for all those elements within the bureaucracy who identified their own material interests with the development of the USSR as a powerful national state. The bureaucracy obtained its privileges through the mechanism of state ownership of the means of production. The more it became conscious of the national-state foundations of its privileges, the less willing was the bureaucracy to place these at risk in the interest of world revolution. The program of socialism in one country legitimized the subordination of the interests of the international socialist movement to the national interests of the Soviet state, as they were conceived by the bureaucracy.

It was precisely at the level of the international class struggle that the consequences of the defeat of the Left Opposition were the most tragic and long-lasting, and where, therefore, the question of whether the USSR might have developed along different lines is posed most seriously and profoundly. In his own analysis of the growth of the Stalinist regime, Trotsky always stressed that the political reaction within the USSR against the program and traditions of October was greatly strengthened by the defeats suffered by the international working class. The initial setback suffered by the Left Opposition in the late autumn of 1923 was definitely bound up with the defeat of the German Revolution, which dimmed hopes that European workers would in the near future come to the aid of the USSR. This was the climate that created a broader audience for the nationalist perspective of socialism in one country. The political disorientation produced by the nationalist line of the Soviet leaders inside the Communist International led, in turn, to more defeats for the working class outside the USSR. Each of these defeats intensified the isolation of Soviet Russia, further eroded the confidence of Soviet workers in the perspective of world revolution, and undermined the political position of the Marxist and internationalist opposition to the Stalinist regime.

Being by nature highly skeptical of the possibility of revolution, which they tend to view as a violation of the normal course of historical development, professional historians find it easiest to dismiss as unrealistic and utopian the international perspective that animated the October Revolution. We have already seen how Hobsbawm considers Lenin’s faith in the prospects for a German Revolution a fatal lapse in his political judgment. Though Hobsbawm says nothing at all about Trotsky’s struggle against the political line of socialism in one country, I am sure that if he were asked to comment, he would reply that Trotsky’s international perspective in the 1920s and 1930s was as unrealistic as Lenin’s had been in 1918. Hobsbawm would argue that to consider Trotsky’s international program as a viable alternative that, if followed, might have changed the course of Soviet history is just another exercise in counterfactual speculation that leads to a dead end.

How, then, can we demonstrate that the international policies of the Left Opposition, based on the theory of permanent revolution, would have greatly strengthened the Communist International and improved the international position of the Soviet Union? Of course, we cannot prove to a political and moral certainty that the victory of the Left Opposition would have guaranteed the success of revolutionary struggles outside the Soviet Union. We are perfectly prepared to admit that in the sphere of revolution, the outcome is decided not by logical proofs but by actual struggle. However, that does not mean that we cannot arrive at some plausible conclusions, based on historical evidence, about the probable consequences of an Opposition victory for the world revolutionary movement.

Let us consider, if only briefly, two critical episodes in the history of the international working class.

The Chinese Revolution

First, the catastrophic defeat of the Chinese Revolution in 1927. The cause of this defeat was the subordination of the Chinese Communist Party to the bourgeois Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek. The Chinese CP was instructed by Stalin to accept Chiang and the Kuomintang as the authoritative leadership of the democratic revolution. The political background of these instructions were the efforts of Stalin to establish closer relations between the Soviet Union and China via a political alliance with Chiang. Trotsky persistently warned that the subordination of the CCP to the bourgeois Kuomintang, a violation of the most basic lessons of Bolshevik strategy in 1917, would have disastrous consequences for the working class. Chiang was not an ally in whom the Communist Party and workers could place the slightest confidence. As soon as an opportunity presented itself, Chiang, responding to the pressures of his imperialist and bourgeois patrons, would turn savagely against the CCP and the revolutionary Shanghai workers. These warnings were ignored: even as the actions of Chiang grew more menacing, Stalin pressed the CCP to demonstrate its loyalty to the Kuomintang ever more ostentatiously. The CCP finally instructed revolutionary workers in Shanghai to disarm themselves before Chiang’s troops entered the city. As Trotsky’s condemnation of Stalin’s policies echoed through the Communist International, events in China moved to a disastrous denouement. Chiang’s troops entered Shanghai where, as Trotsky and the Left Opposition had warned, they proceeded to slaughter tens of thousands of Communist workers. The CCP was dealt a blow from which it never recovered.

It is not necessary to assert what is by the very nature of things unprovable: that the policies of the Left Opposition would have assured the victory of the Chinese Revolution in the 1920s—though I believe that such a victory would have been possible. But what can be said with a high degree of certainty is that the Chinese Communist Party would not have fallen victim to Chiang’s coup of April 1927, and the position of the working class would not have been so disastrously weakened. As events turned out under the leadership of Stalin, the historical consequences of the defeat in China were of such a magnitude as to be incalculable. Aside from its immediate impact on the USSR—it deepened the Soviet Union’s political isolation and, therefore, strengthened the bureaucratic regime—the 1927 defeat tragically altered the character of the revolutionary movement in China itself. With their position within the cities shattered by Chiang’s counterrevolutionary blow, the confused remnants of the CCP retreated into the countryside and abandoned its historic orientation to the working class. Henceforth, the work of the CCP, under the leadership of Mao—who, by the way, had stood on the right wing of the shattered party—was to be based upon the peasantry. Thus, the party which came to power in 1949 had few serious links to the working class and bore little resemblance to the movement as it had existed prior to the catastrophe of 1927. Even to this day, as the heirs of Mao encourage and supervise the exploitation of the Chinese masses by transnational corporations, we are living with the direct consequences of the disastrous policies pursued by Stalin.

If the victory of the Left Opposition had done nothing more than avoid the catastrophe produced by Stalin’s policies in China, that in itself would have profoundly altered the course of world history to the benefit of the Soviet Union and the international revolutionary movement.

Hitler’s rise to power

Let us now consider the second episode: the rise of fascism to power in Germany. Prior to the victory of Hitler in January 1933, the two mass workers parties in Germany—the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Communist Party (KPD)—commanded the political allegiance of thirteen million voters. In the last German elections held prior to the appointment of Hitler as chancellor, the total vote of these two parties was greater than that received by the Nazis. The vote totals, however, do not fully express the relative strengths of the fascist and socialist movements. Even with its shock troops, Hitler’s movement—based on the ruined petty bourgeoisie and lumpenized strata—was an amorphous and unstable mass. The two socialist parties, on the other hand, were based on a working class which, by virtue of its relation to the key productive forces, represented a powerful social and political force.

The one great advantage enjoyed by Hitler, however, was the political division of the workers’ movement. The leaders of both the Social Democratic and Communist Parties refused to undertake any joint action to defend the working class against the fascist threat. The attitude of the Social Democrats flowed from their cowardly subservience to the rotting bourgeois Weimar regime and their fear of the potentially revolutionary consequences of a unified offensive of Social Democratic and Communist workers against the fascists.

The central problem facing the Communist Party was to overcome this debilitating division of the working class by offering to form a United Front with the Social Democrats to beat back the fascist threat. Notwithstanding the political opposition of the SPD leaders, official, direct and persistent appeals by the KPD for a United Front would have made, at the very least, a profound impression upon Social Democratic workers and demonstrated that the Communists were not responsible for the divisions with the ranks of the German proletariat. Even if the shifting of mass Social Democratic opinion had failed to overcome the resistance of SPD and trade union leaders to a serious struggle against Hitler, a persistent campaign by the Communist Party would have raised its stature in the eyes of millions of Social Democratic workers and drawn substantial sections of them over to its side.

But such a campaign was never waged by the KPD. Instead, in keeping with the ultra-leftist “Third Period” line imposed by the Stalinists at the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, the KPD declared that Social Democracy was a variety of fascism—“social fascism” to be precise. All agreements with this “social fascism” were deemed impermissible.

As early as 1930, Trotsky—who was, by then, in exile on the island of Prinkipo off the Turkish coast—warned that fascism represented a grave threat to the German and international working class, and that the failure of the KPD to fight for a united front was clearing the way for Hitler to come to power. On September 26, 1930, Trotsky wrote:

Fascism in Germany has become a real danger, as an acute expression of the helpless position of the bourgeois regime, the conservative role of Social Democracy in this regime, and the accumulated powerlessness of the Communist Party to abolish it. Whoever denies this is either blind or a braggart. [28]

A successful defensive struggle against fascism, he wrote, “means a policy of closing ranks with the majority of the German working class and forming a united front with the Social Democratic and non-party workers against the fascist threat.” [29]

On November 26, 1931 Trotsky wrote:

It is the duty of the Left Opposition to give the alarm: the leadership of the Comintern is driving the German proletariat towards an enormous catastrophe, the essence of which is a panicky capitulation before fascism.

The coming to power of the National Socialists would mean first of all the extermination of the flower of the German proletariat, the destruction of its organizations, the eradication of its belief in itself and in its future. Considering the far greater maturity and acuteness of the social contradictions in Germany, the hellish work of Italian fascism would probably appear as a pale and almost humane experiment in comparison with the work of the German National Socialists. [30]

On January 27, 1932, replying to the pathetic claims of the Stalinist leaders that the victory of Hitler would merely pave the way for a Communist victory, Trotsky wrote:

Fascism is not merely a system of reprisals, of brutal force, and of police terror. Fascism is a particular governmental system based on the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society. The task of fascism lies not only in destroying the Communist vanguard but in holding the entire class in a state of forced disunity. To this end the physical annihilation of the most revolutionary section of workers does not suffice. It is also necessary to smash all independent and voluntary organizations, to demolish all the defensive bulwarks of the proletariat and to uproot whatever has been achieved during three-quarters of a century by the Social Democracy and the trade unions. [31]

I will cite just one more passage from the writings of Trotsky. In April 1932 Trotsky issued a statement warning that the victory of Hitler would make war between Germany and Soviet Russia inevitable. Choosing his words carefully, Trotsky explained how he would respond, were he in power, to a fascist victory in Germany:

Upon receiving the telegraphic communication of this event, I would sign an order for the mobilization of the reserves. When you have a mortal enemy before you, and when war flows with necessity from the logic of the objective situation, it would be unpardonable light-mindedness to give that enemy time to establish and fortify himself, conclude the necessary alliances, receive the necessary help, work out a plan of concentric military actions, not only from the West but from the East, and thus grow up to the dimensions of a colossal danger. [32]

Possessing as we do knowledge of what was to come—the victory of the Nazis, the subsequent perfidy of Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler, the outbreak of World War II, Stalin’s cowardly dismantling of Soviet defenses as Hitler prepared the launching of Operation Barbarossa, the loss of twenty-seven million Soviet soldiers and civilians in repelling the German invasion—one cannot read Trotsky’s words without a sense of tragic loss and waste. How much human misery and suffering might have been avoided, how different the course of the twentieth century might have been, had the policies of Trotsky—of revolutionary Marxism—prevailed.

Our brief review of the defeats in China and Germany hardly qualifies even as a preliminary introduction to the subject of the counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism in the international workers movement and its impact on the evolution of the USSR. But we are already straining against the limits of what can reasonably be presented within the framework of one lecture. Yet there is one point that I must add for the sake of historical clarity. The defeat of the German working class marked a decisive turning point in the evolution of the Stalinist regime itself. Confronted with a serious threat from a powerful fascist regime for which his own policies were centrally responsible, Stalin moved to sever whatever tenuous connections still existed between the Soviet state and the goal of world socialist revolution. Henceforth, the defense of the USSR was to be based on the forging of political alliances with imperialist states—democratic or fascist, depending on the circumstances—at the expense of the interests of the international working class. The role of the Soviet Union in world affairs assumed a directly counterrevolutionary character, a transformation that found murderous expression in the betrayal of the Spanish Revolution, the massacre of Old Bolsheviks, the hunting down of revolutionary opponents of the Stalinist regime outside the borders of the USSR, and finally in the Stalin-Hitler Pact.

Hobsbawm is not merely blind to all this. His writing suggests that he has failed to subject to any critical review the political conceptions that allowed him to remain a member of the British Communist Party for many decades: “The terrible paradox of the Soviet era,” Hobsbawm tells us with a straight face, “is that the Stalin experienced by the Soviet peoples and the Stalin seen as a liberating force outside were the same. And he was the liberator for the ones at least in part because he was the tyrant for the others.” [33]

What Hobsbawm really should have written is that “the Stalin experienced by the Soviet people and the Stalin as he was deceitfully portrayed by the British Communist Party were not quite the same thing.” Instead, unfortunately, Hobsbawm compromises himself as a historian by engaging in shabby pro-Stalinist apologetics, and thereby exposing what has been the tragic paradox of his own intellectual life.

In our review of the main differences between the Stalinist regime and the Left Opposition in the three areas of party regime, economic policy, and international strategy, we have attempted to demonstrate that the victory of Trotskyism—that is, of genuine Marxism—would have in all probability profoundly altered the course of Soviet history and that of the international socialist movement. We expect that this contention will be dismissed by those who interpret the history of the Soviet Union within the framework of a sort of absolute determinism of historical defeat. For these incorrigible sceptics and pessimists, who believe that the cause of socialism has been doomed from the start, policies, programs and all other forms of subjective activity count for nothing.

The historical alternative to Stalinism must be studied

As we have already explained, it is impossible to state with certainty that Trotsky’s victory would have guaranteed the survival of the USSR and the victory of socialism. But such a claim is hardly necessary to endow our consideration of historical alternatives with political and intellectual legitimacy. It is only necessary for us to establish that a real potential did exist for a course of historical development other than that which occurred; and that at certain critical points in its history the Soviet Union arrived, so to speak, at a fork in the road where the implementation of different, i.e. Marxist, policies would have made possible a far more favorable outcome of events.

We now anticipate another question, which is both serious and appropriate: Even if one were to grant that the positions of Trotsky and the Left Opposition represented, from the standpoint of theory, a genuine Marxist alternative to those of the Stalinist regime, did this Opposition ever represent a truly significant political force within the Soviet Union? After all, the consideration of alternatives, if it is not to be a fruitless speculative exercise, should limit itself to what was possible within the framework of the existing objective conditions.

In answering this important question, I would like to cite a valuable work entitled The Birth of Stalinism by the German historian Michal Reiman.

The importance of the left opposition is often underestimated in the literature. … many authors doubt that the opposition had any substantial influence on the mass of party members and even less on broader sections of the population. One can hardly agree with such views: they seem paradoxical indeed in light of the mountain of ammunition expended on the opposition by the party leadership in those years—the multitude of official declarations, reports, pamphlets, and books, not to mention the mass political campaigns that penetrated even the remotest parts of the USSR.

In the spring of 1926 the united opposition, based on a cadre of old and experienced party leaders, conquered some fairly significant positions. It consolidated its influence in Leningrad, the Ukraine, Transcaucasia, and the Urals region; in the universities; in some of the central government offices; in a number of factories of Moscow and the central industrial region; and among a section of the command staff of the army and navy, which had passed through the difficult years of the civil war under Trotsky’s leadership. Repression by the party leadership prevented the opposition from growing, but its influence was still much greater than indicated by the various votes taken in the party cells. [34]

Trotsky and the other principal leaders of the Left Opposition were expelled from the Russian Communist Party at a plenum of the central committee held in July and August 1927. This failed to silence the Opposition.

Reiman writes:

Even after the plenum, the party organizations continued to be flooded—especially in the large urban centers and the two capitals—with opposition literature and leaflets. Reports of heightened opposition activity came one after the other from various cities and from entire provinces—Leningrad, the Ukraine, Transcaucasia, Siberia, the Urals, and of course, Moscow, where the greater number of opposition political leaders were working. There was a steadily growing number of illegal and semi-legal meetings attended by industrial workers and young people. The influence of the opposition in a number of large party units became quite substantial. It hampered the former free functioning of the Stalinist party apparatus. The army was also strongly affected by opposition activity. Reports on a significant rise in the authority of the opposition came from the Leningrad military district and the garrison in Leningrad, from Kronstadt, and from troop units in the Ukraine and Byelorussia.

The main problem was not the increase in opposition activity, however, but the overall balance of power within the party. Quite a large number of famous political leaders were on the opposition side. The weakened authority of the party leadership, especially of Stalin and Bukharin, was insufficient to turn the setbacks and failures of party policy into gains. [35]

How, then, did the Stalin faction overcome the challenge represented by the Left Opposition? Reiman explains: “The leadership could not cope with the situation without bringing the GPU into the fight.” [36]

The subsequent history of the USSR and the international socialist movement is the record of the bloody consequences of the violence employed by the Stalinist bureaucracy to consolidate its power and privileges. It is impossible to conclude a discussion of historical alternatives without a consideration of the impact and costs of the Stalinist repression. Hobsbawm, as we have seen, skirts over this issue. Industrialization, he has told us, “was going to require a good deal of coercion, even if the USSR had been led by someone less utterly cruel than Stalin.” Hobsbawm simply ignores the social basis and political purpose of the violence organized by the bureaucracy. Stalinist violence was not a matter of revolutionary excesses but of counterrevolutionary terror.

If Hobsbawm does not care to deal with this matter, it is because an honest treatment of the historical meaning and consequences of the purges, for the Soviet Union and the international socialist movement, cannot possibly be reconciled with his exercise in historical apologetics. There was an alternative to the Stalinist variant of Soviet development, and the Stalinist terror was the means by which it was annihilated. What was destroyed in the cellars of the Lubyanka and countless other execution chambers throughout the Soviet Union were hundreds of thousands of revolutionary socialists who had contributed to the victory of the October Revolution. Their influence upon the working class and Soviet society had not been limited to the propagation of specific political ideas, however important these ideas were. Stalin’s victims were, in their collective activity, the representatives of an extraordinary socialist culture that imparted to the revolutionary movement of the Russian working class a world historical significance.

In Trotsky, this culture found its highest expression. As Victor Serge explained so brilliantly:

For a man like Trotsky to arise, it was necessary that thousands and thousands of individuals should establish the type over a long historical period. It was a broad social phenomenon, not the sudden flashing of a comet…

… The formation of this great social type—the highest reach of modern man, I think—ceased after 1917, and most of its surviving representatives were massacred at Stalin’s orders in 1936–7. As I write these lines, as names and faces crowd in on me, it occurs to me that this kind of man had to be extirpated, his whole tradition and generation, before the level of our time could be sufficiently lowered. Men like Trotsky suggest much too uncomfortably the human possibilities of the future to be allowed to survive in a time of sloth and reaction. [37]

Why have we devoted this lecture to a consideration of the possibility of alternatives in the historical outcome of the October Revolution? Certainly, the past cannot be changed and we must live with its consequences. But how we understand the past—and the process through which those consequences were formed—is the essential foundation of our comprehension of the present historical situation and the potential within it. Our assessment of the possibilities for socialism in the future is inextricably bound up with our interpretation of the causes of the defeats it suffered in the course of this century.

What lessons do we draw from the twentieth century? If all that has happened since the outbreak of World War I has merely been the expression of uncontrollable and incomprehensible forces, then there is little more one can do than hope or pray—depending on your preference and desperation—for better luck in the future.

But to those who have studied and assimilated the experiences of this century, the present historical situation and the prospects for the future appear entirely different. The events of this century acquire a broad historical context and meaning. No other period in history has been so rich in revolutionary and counterrevolutionary experience. The clash of conflicting social forces attained an unprecedented level of intensity. The working class, having achieved its first great revolutionary breakthrough in 1917, proved unable to withstand the terrific force of the counterrevolution that followed. However, through the work of Trotsky, the Left Opposition and the Fourth International, the nature of that counterrevolution and the causes of the defeats were subjected to analysis and comprehended. And it is upon these theoretical and political foundations that the Fourth International prepares consciously, and with unrepentant revolutionary optimism, for the future.


Stefan Zweig, Die Welt von Gestern: Erinnerungen eines Europäers (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1997), (translation by D. North), p. 17.


Eric J. Hobsbawm, On History (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), p. 243.


Ibid., p. 245.


Ibid., p. 246.


Ibid., p. 245.


Ibid., p. 247.


For a detailed account of the events of 1923, see Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917–1923, translated by John Archer (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006). Trotsky’s assessment of the errors of the German Communist Party is cited
on p. 822.


On History, p. 248.


Ibid., p. 243.


Ibid., p. 249.




This is not to say that the conscious factor plays no role in natural events. The scale of the damage caused by an earthquake or flood will depend on the extent of conscious preparation in advance, and the speed with which conscious
coutermeasures are implemented after the disaster strikes. The New Orleans hurricane of 2005 illustrates the role played by the conscious factor in a natural disaster, or the lack thereof.










Ibid., p. 48.


Ibid., p. 249.


Leon Trotsky, “The New Course,” The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1923–25, (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975), p. 79.


Ibid., p. 98.


Ibid., pp. 98–99.


Ibid., p. 88.


Ibid., p. 94.


The Platform of the Joint Opposition 1927 (London: New Park Publications, 1973), p. 41.


Writings of Leon Trotsky 1930 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975), pp. 115–117.


Ibid., p. 118.


On History, p. 251.


Leon Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York: Merit Publishers, 1971), p. 78.


Ibid., p. 94.


Ibid., p. 160.


Ibid., p. 186.


Writings of Leon Trotsky 1932 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), p. 92.


On History, p. 252.


Michal Reiman, The Birth of Stalinism: The USSR on the Eve of the “Second Revolution”, trans. George Saunders (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 19–20.


Ibid., pp. 27–28.


Ibid., p. 28.


David Cotterill, ed., The Serge-Trotsky Papers (London: Pluto Press, 1994), p. 209.