Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Tony Cliff - Trotsky, The Sword of the Revolution, 1917 - 1923

This, the second part of Tony Cliff's four volume biography of  Leon Trotsky deals with the period that would be most disputed perhaps by Joseph Stalin and his followers at home and abroad. This is the aftermath of the October revolution - the workers and soldiers have seized power in Russia. Soviet power is a reality across a huge swathe of the globe. The seizure of power itself had be masterminded in many ways by Trotsky, and the book starts with the discussions that took place immediately - how to form a government and so on.

But the meat of this book deals with the fallout of the revolution. Russia was an immensely backward nation, dominated by a peasantry which had only recently broken from its serfdom. The working class, though powerful, was small. It had lead a mass revolution that had the loyalty and backing of the majority of the population, but no-body believed that Soviet Russia, alone could survive.

Of course, the seizure of power by the working class wasn't something that could be allowed to go unchecked - almost immediately the foreign nations intervened. Invading armies from those nations that had being battering each other months before in the trenches of World War One, were turned on the new revolutionary nation.

Trotsky was, perhaps after Lenin, one of the most well known and respected revolutionaries. He was at the heart of the debates, and indeed the action that took place in the aftermath of October 1917. He wasn't always right, and despite the authors obvious respect for Trotsky, he isn't afraid to criticise and disagree. This is most obvious with the political battles that took place immediately after Lenin's death when Trotsky could and should have moved to isolate and remove Stalin and his clique from power. This is what he had agreed he would do with Lenin, and Cliff sees Trotsky as betraying that agreement;

"That Trotsky was later very embarrassed by his behaviour at the Twelfth Congress is clear from the fact that no reference at all to the congress can be found in his autobiography, while four pages are devoted to describing duck hunting in precisely the place where a description of the congress would be expected."

Perhaps the most important and inspiring parts of the book are those that deal with Trotsky's forging of the Red Army. One of the central planks of the revolution had been the desire for peace. To have to create a new army from scratch, when the old Tsarist one had melted away during the revolutionary year of 1917 was difficult enough. To inspire and lead this army to defeat first the counter-revolutionary "white" armies and then the invading imperialist ones, was nothing short of miraculous.

But because the army was motivated by more than conscription or mercenary interests, it was far better than its opponents. Time and again they won battles (at least once with Trotsky leading on horseback) they should have lost. As Cliff says, "The Red Army men knew what they were fighting for, and believed in it passionately". Something that couldn't be said of those they were fighting.

But the gradual degeneration of working class power is always there in this story. The Red Army is part of this. The most able workers, the best communists joined the civil war, undermining the very heart of Bolshevik power in the factories of Petrograd and Moscow. Alongside this, the growing bureaucracy starts to become a force for itself. Interestingly, Cliff argues that Trotsky's success in forming the Red Army helped to undermine himself as it created a bloc of individuals who had their own interests and ideas. Debates on tactics helped this process:

"The strong influence of guerrillaism among the party cadres led to the formation of a Military Opposition, which continued throughout the civil war and which later became the core of the Stalinist faction."

Trotsky's preoccupation with the civil war, meant that he was absent for some of the most important post-revolution debates, though an enormous outpouring of writings from the period show that he was constantly thinking, reading and writing. The debates on the role of Trade Unions, military strategy, international questions are important, and show that even as the revolution declined the spirit of discussion and debate still existed at its core.

But it is with the final fight with Stalin that the book ends. Trotsky comes across as naive about the factional fight that he must fight. He is Lenin's favoured successor, yet seems unwilling to use this to defeat Stalin. Yet I was left with the feeling that even had Trotsky won this factional battle there would seem to have been little that could have been done to turn the tide of revolutionary degeneration. Russia was isolated, the expected international revolution hadn't occurred. Industry was decimated, and the working class tired, exhausted and far reduced.

Cliff understands though that hindsight is important and sums up by arguing;

"Lack of theoretical and political clarity led Trotsky to make a number of concessions and compromises, above all to Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were to become his new allies in the United Opposition of 1926-7. Nothing was more alien to Trotsky’s character than hesitation and fudging. When by 1927 he grasped the enormity of Stalin’s crimes, and called Stalin ‘the gravedigger of the revolution’, he became completely uncompromising."

When the next stage of the fight was on, Trotsky carried the flame of international socialism and helped to keep it alive. That he had played such a central role in the revolution was something that Stalin tried to write from history, yet couldn't quite destroy.

If you can't get hold of a copy of this volume second hand, you can find it at the Marxist Internet Archive here.

Related Reviews

Cliff - Trotsky; Towards October. Volume one of this biography.
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Hallas - Trotsky's Marxism

No comments: