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Trotsky and his Critics. A Review.

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Trotsky and his Critics. Revolutionary History Volume 11. Number 1. 2013.

For the revolutionary Marxist the struggle against reformism now changes itself almost completely into struggle against centrism. ….

Before taking seriously the fine words of the centrists concerning the “dictatorship of the proletariat” it is necessary to exact from them a serious defence against Fascism, a complete break with the bourgeoisie, the systematic upbuilding of a workers’ militia, its training in a will to fight, the creation of inter-party defence centres, of anti-fascist centres, the expulsion from their ranks of parliamentarians, trade-unionists, and other traitors, of bourgeois lackeys, careerists, etc. … It is precisely on this plane that one must now deliver the principle blows at centrism

Trotsky. Two Articles on Centrism. 1934.

Trotsky, the Editors of Revolutionary History note, was no “stranger to the cut and thrust of vigorous debate.” The leader of the Red Army and the Fourth International, “never hesitated, sharply to criticise the view of his rivals and to offer fraternal criticisms of those of his comrades and to reply to his critics with considerable energy.” (Page 5) However while his own polemics are widely available, “little of the material to which he was replying or which presented a critique of his views has been published.”(Ibid)

Others have been less generous about Trotsky’s “fraternal criticisms” and his energy-filled character. “Even Trotsky’s son Lev Lyovuich Sedov noted his “lack of tolerance, hot temper, inconsistency, even rudeness, his desire to humiliate, offend and even destroy, have increased. It is not ‘personal’ it is a method and hardly good in organisation of work.”(a never-sent letter to his mother Natalia Sedova 16th April 1936). (1)

A recent, hostile, biographer has observed, “Neither in private nor in public, though, did he suffer fools gladly; indeed he did not suffer them at all. He did nothing to correct the impression of being an arrogant know-all.” One could perhaps further illuminate Trotsky’s particular “polemical demeanour” with the observation that Trotsky saw “individuals as servants to an aim, and an idea rather than personalities in their own right.”(3)

Most of the articles in Trotsky and His Critics come from those on the sharp end of Trotsky’s polemics. They testify to the frustration of those attempting to debate about ideology and real political choices with somebody whom Pierre Broué called, “a giant dominating in his thought and his experience of a quarter of a century of revolutionary struggles” – a view, shared by the Bolshevik leader, that he was at few pains to conceal. (4)

The present volume of Revolutionary History presents newly translated contributions from a variety of sources. A common thread is that the majority come from those Trotsky described as “centrist”. That is, those democratic Marxists who rejected both Stalin and the ‘Third International’, then, Comintern, leadership, and the traditional social democratic ‘Second International’ of such bodies as the German SPD, France’s SFIO, and the Labour Party.

Nobody has written a satisfactory history of these organisations. They included the Independent Labour Party, ILP, (disaffiliated from Labour in 1932), the PSOP (Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan (founded after their explusion from the French Socialist Party in 1938), the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista), formed in 1935, with many smaller groups in Germany (represented here by the IVKO, Internationale Vereinigung der Komministischen Opposition) Holland (the party best known for its leader, Henk Sneevliet, and elsewhere.There was an centrist International, The London Bureau, or  International Revolutionary Marxist Centre (1932 – 1940) which liased between these organisations.

‘Centrists’ while expressing respect for many of Trotsky’s ideas (above all his opposition to Stalinism), failed to live up to his expectations. They did not restrict their democratic demands to inner party freedom. The majority opposed Leninist “democratic centralism”. They remained wedded to Parliamentary elections. Centrists were known to be hostile to the use of terror, and recoiled from violence. They stood for what is now known as human rights. As a result Trotsky called the ILP a “miserable pacifist clique” (5) Not surprisingly the leader of the French PSOP said that the Trotskyists would only be welcome in his party if they abandoned their vicious factionalism and denigration of ‘centrists” (6)

Yet Trotsky was also the head of the Opposition. If anybody needs to be reminded of what he was opposed to and the measure in which his fight against Stalinism was justified then some of the texts, notably by John Lewis, which defend the 1936 Moscow Trials, are there to remind us of what was at stake during the “historical events” that shaped these exchanges.

Boris Souvarine.

The Letter to Leon Trotsky (1929) by Boris Souvarine is probably the most significant text in Trotsky and His Critics. Souvarine flashed like lightening on the Communist left during the 1920s. His early political career was bound up with the foundation of the French Communist Party (PCF), time on the Comintern Executive Committee and his decision to defend Trotsky. Souvarine was fiercely independent.

At the beginning of the October Revolution in 1917 Souvarine expressed the fear that Lenin’s party would establish a dictatorship over the proletariat. (7) Perhaps one should bear this in mind, In Stalin (1935) he was already far from Trotskyism. A famous postscript added in 1939 concluded,

The force of things and the behaviour of men have contradicted all Lenin’s optimistic forecasts, his hopes in a superior democracy as much as his semi-libertarian ideas expressed in the State and Revolution and other writings of the same period, at the dawn of the revolution. Nothing in the individual theses of Trotsky has stood the test any better, in particular his wordy and abstract theory of the “permanent revolution.” Lenin died too soon to write the epilogue to the miscarriage of Bolshevism. Trotsky has not availed himself of the leisure afforded by exile to make a true and conscientious examination; even his memoirs do not make the contribution to history, which one has the right to expect from such a protagonist; his articles and pamphlets vainly paraphrase a hackneyed argument without throwing light on a single problem. The miscarriage of Bolshevism in Russia is coupled with the irremediable failure of the International, and the lessons of experience go far beyond the sphere of civil war. Democratic socialism in its various forms, in the name of legitimate defence against fascism, is almost everywhere allowing itself to be led, circumvented and compromised by dictatorial communism. 

The Letter teams with thoughts, not always well organised. Leninism was “Marxism simplified”. Russia was not communist but dominated by “peasant mysticism”. Souvarine struck more directly at Trotsky by remarking that, “The opposition itself did not oppose the “divinisation of Lenin and the canonisation of his work, or even to propose burning the entombed corpse along with its mausoleum.”(Page 16) he compared Trotsky’s ‘clarity’ with a “gramophone record”: a repetitive strain of invective. “His analysis classes people as Marxist, centrist and opportunist. He shows that this schema has little historical use, “centrism serves for you to avoid appraisals.”(Page 28)

On a number of important issues Souvarine illustrates the harmful way of classifying politics in this way. Trotsky ranged communists on their line on a range of issues, political ones in Britain, economy ones in Russia and tactical ones in China. If he fails that, “you class him on that side of ‘the barricade’ where according to you are to be found the bourgeoisie, the social democracy and the ‘centre-Right Bloc’.”(Page 29)

Souvarine takes Trotsky’s Where is Britain Going? (1925) as an example. This book is essentially a lengthy polemic. It asserts, “We have shown above that the present British Parliament represent a monstrous distortion of the principles of bourgeois democracy, and that without the application of revolutionary force it will hardly be possible to archive even an honest distribution of the electoral regions in Britain, the abrogation of the monarchy and the House of Lords.”(8)

While awaiting this development Trotsky produced an account of how industrial conflicts, might end in the “strengthening of the revolutionary tendencies in the masses” and of the central role of trade unions as the “main lever of the economic transformation of country” A confident prediction that the Communist Party will take the place of the Independent Labour Party in relation to the Labour Party is marked by a complaint (with which we are already familiar) that the ILP itself is a “resurrection of centrism within the social-imperialist party” – of Labour.

The Letter observes that all this relies on “far too strict transposition of continental revolutionary processes into the British setting…”(Page 31) With the Stalinists you “both believed that the British industrial crisis was opening up revolutionary period.”(Page 31) Both were wrong. “You know as well as I do that communists do not exist in Great Britain.”(Page 32) Showing probably a greater unfamiliarly with British socialism Souvarine asserted that the British trade union left remains “disciples of Mill and Spencer.”(Page 34) There was a deeper fault. Working class reformism “is deeply rooted in the economy of capitalism, and its ideology is fed from abundant and diverse streams which you will no way uncover by crying betrayal, or choke them off by indiscriminately condemning all who contradict you by using one and the same sentence”(Page 37) The problems in Trotsky’s stand on Britain are repeated in your “position as regards the non-communist working class of every land….”(Page 35)

In short, Trotsky’s belief that he could dictate “day to day” tactics” for the left in other countries was already one of his characteristics before his expulsion from the Soviet Union gave him free-rein to do so. It can be traced to a wider tendency. In the famous debate on China, and the relations between the country’s Communists and the Kuomintang we already saw efforts, by both the Stalin-led (in fact still partially collegiate) leadership and Trotsky to “impose a Russian leadership upon a Chinese movement.”(Page 43)

One would like to have known more about the exact nature of Souvraine’s  later anti-Communism. If it bore a Cold War stamp the impression of complex, passionate and stimulating thought remains.

Spain and the POUM.

Souvarine remarked to Trotsky “anyone who contradicts it is more or less a traitor or a counter-revolutionary.”(Page 35) Few would be astonished to find themselves quickly anathematised. More unpleasant is the lingering stench from Trotsky’s efforts to tell the Spanish left what to do during the Popular Front and Civil War. He baldly declared in 1939 that, “is it not now clear that the POUM’s fear of the petty bourgeois public opinion of the Second and Third Internationals and above all of the anarchists was one of the principal causes of the collapse of the Spanish revolution?” (9) This Leyenda Negra of the cruel stupidity of the POUM   has been repeated many times since.

Wikebaldo Solano, in a more recent retrospective, tries to find excuses for Trotsky. Andreu Nin was a great friend of the leading figure of the Russian Revolution. But there were faults. Trotsky wrongly compared the French and Spanish Popular Fronts. The latter was not an “organic coalition” but an “electoral front”. Trotsky showed “total incomprehension” (Page 152) Trotsky initially greeted the 1936 victory. His latter judgements- that is his efforts to run a minuscule faction that would attack the PSOE was perhaps misjudged. But Trotsky had few real possibilities of being “informed about the Spanish revolution…”“Trotsky’s information was very deficient and always late in arriving.”(Page 155)

Ignacio Iglesias is less forgiving. Trotsky’s “illusions were basically wanting to see everywhere a repeat of the Russian October Revolution. “(Page 158) His analysis boiled down to pinning the defeat of the Republic on the lack of a Bolshevik-Leninist party in the Spanish revolution. Not even speaking Spanish he attempted to dictate policy. Above all, “Trotsky, just like Stalin, and just like Lenin before them suffered from a very serious fault, a real perversion of the spirit, in that his intolerance would turn political difference into heresy or even apostasy.”(Page 159)

Centrism’s Legacy.

There is much further interesting material, by the (later Stalinist) Mark Schmidt, on Spain. The articles by the German Opposition, and Jay Lovestone (who became a Cold Warrior) with a critical view of  Soviet Policy and World Revolution, are of interest. It would perhaps have been useful to introduce some of the debates on the ‘centrist’ that is independent anti-Stalinist left, to which we have already alluded to. Marceau Pivert is relatively unknown to an Anglophone audience, though the group he participated in, the Gauche Révolutionnaire  and subsequently the PSOP, were influential.

Pivert had a very different take on another Popular Front, the French Front Populaire, to the myths spun by Trotsky regarding the “betrayal” imminent revolution there. If his writings no longer hold many people’s attention, Pivert and his party, the PSOP, have had an enduring influence, both within the Parti Socialiste (he rejoined, post-war, its forerunner, the SFIO), and within the Front de gauche (FdG). Indeed it is hard to understand the importance of social republicanism and secularism in French left politics without him.


In case we need reminding of how right Trotsky was on some issues the editors have included a text by a certain John Lewis.

Lewis was a Unitarian Minister in Ipswich during the 1930s. Extensive research (asking around) has shown that he was controversial – prone to argue with the congregation from the pulpit, and apparently a ‘Ladies Man’. Edged out, or simply moving on, Lewis went on to work for the Left Book Club, and became a leading figure in the Communist Party of Great Britain, where he edited its Modern Quarterly. An advocate of “socialist humanism” and Christian Marxist dialogue, paralleling efforts by the former French hard-line Stalinist, Roger Garaudy. Louis Althusser famously attacked him for these ideas.

Lewis’s ‘humanism’ had a distinct cast in the Stalin era. Cited by E.P.Thompson this was expressed by praise of the Soviet achievement. In 1946 he noted, that the “most cautious investigators” reveal “a respect for personality, an achievement of freedom from want an insecurity, an equality of opportunity, that has filled the Soviet people with boundless confidence and hope.”(10)

Perfectionists and the Moscow Trials. (1937) is included in Trotsky and His Critics . It is, the editors state, from “textual analysis” probably by John Lewis.

Lewis talks of social perfectionism, which means that people strive for the perfection of God. In reality Christians must have “to share in the responsibility for blunder suffering and crime.”(Page 126) He then helpfully announces, “there was neither blunder nor crime in the ruthless judgements in the Moscow trials (they) were a protective reaction against the most reckless political conspiracy that was ever directed ageist the lives and existence of a whole people; that at no previous stage in history could the treasonous acts of idealists have struck as deadly a blow to a vast population…”(Page 126)

This is the “Trotskyite idealist who is prepared to destroy Socialist reality for the sake of his perfectionist fantasies.”(Page 128) The Trotskyists could not admit that Stalin’s position was “anything but the ruin of the revolution.”(Page 127) They thus act as “if they had been right” and had “resolved to remove Stalin and his supporters from power in order to change the policy of Russia, stop industrialisation and collective farms, reverse the development towards democracy in Russia both internally and externally.”(Page 127)

As they could not win the masses to this policy of” self-destruction”, the masses had to be manoeuvred into doing so. The “apparently fortuities destruction of industrial plant was bound to undermine confidence in the government”(Ibid) These “wrecking activities of the Trotskyist ran parallel to the endeavours of the German and Japanese secret agents.”(Page 127) “Leon Trotsky…had got in touch with the German and Japanese authorities in view of an eventual war,”(Page 127)

And so it goes…

Trotsky and his Role.

Pierre Broué’s loyal biography of Trotsky dismisses those, like Isaac Deutscher, who would have preferred that after being forced out of the Soviet Union his subject had not founded the Fourth International, or to have tried to intervene in the day-to-day politics of the left in countries about which he was, at best, imperfectly informed. (11) Even had he withdrawn to a Watchtower, many of us would have been wary of such a political analyst or prophet, given Trotsky’s less than democratic record in the early years of the Soviet Union. The present texts, well-presented and explained, largely confirm this judgement.

Yet this article of John Lewis brings something to the fore: it shows what Trotsky was up against.

  1. Page 236. Victor Serge. The Course is Set on Hope. Susan Weissman. Verso 2001.
  2. Page 337 Trotsky: A Biography. Robert Service. Macmillan. 2009.
  3. Page 80. Stalin’s Nemesis. The Exile, Murder of Leon Trotsky. Bertrand M. Patenaude. Faber & Faber. 2009.
  4. Pierre Broué. Trotsky and the Spanish Revolution Fourth International, Vol. 4 no 1 April 1967.
  5. Leon Trotsky. Where is the PSOP Going? A Correspondence Between Marceau Pivert, Daniel Geurin and Leon Trotsky. 22 December 1938 March 1939.
  6. Le PSOP et le trotskysme. Marceau Pivert. Juin 36. 9th of June. 1939. “s’il abandonne les méthodes fractionnelles, le noyautage commandé de l’extérieur, les moyens de pression et de corruption ou de dénigrement systématique destiné à isoler ou à développer tel ou tel militant qualifié pour la circonstance de « centriste » en vue d’une opération analogue à la préparation d’une « citronnade », alors comme courant politique, le trotskysme peut et doit trouver place au sein du PSOP. »
  7. Les Vies de Boris Souvarine. Critique Sociale. 14 October 2008.
  8. Page 72, Where is Britain Going? Leon Trotsky Socialist Labour League. 1960.
  1. Where is the PSOP Going? Op cit.
  1. Page 318. The Poverty of Theory. E.P.Thompson. Merlin Press. 1978.
  1. Trotsky. Pierre Broué.1988

7 Responses

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  1. Thanks for your good review. I did try to get some other material by those close to but not part of the Trotskyist movement, but was unsuccessful. I think that there is scope for another volume, so long as we can obtain material by Pivert, Landau and others. A couple more mad-cap bits would be good too, if just for entertainment value.

    The Christian Left material, discovered by Ron Heisler, a master at digging up obscurities, is remarkable in its sheer madness. The articles were unsigned but Ron and I did some textual comparison with Lewis’ signed pieces (we suspected that it might be him), and there are many similarities in the writing style. Ron also raked up a lot of amusing details about the close links between the founders of Trotskyism in Britain and the Anglo-Catholics, details that were sadly missed from Sam Bornstein’s and Al Richardson’s history of Trotskyism. I suspect that if LDT knew about Reg Groves’ and Stewart Purkis’ life-long Christian beliefs — and at the ‘smells and bells’ end of Anglicanism to boot — he would have blown a gasket.

    Souvarine’s later material was extremely poor, just a catalogue of Cold War clichés; his intellectual powers really declined after the Second World War. Al Richardson translated some of his prewar material, such as the letter to LDT, which had been reproduced in a French volume. During the 1920s and 1930s, Souvarine made a lot of incisive points. I don’t think that LDT ever properly read his letter; indeed, judging from his remarks I suspect that he only read the start and finish: he never addressed the key questions raised in between.

    Dr Paul

    January 31, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    • There is a lot of relevant material about ‘centrism’ on La Bataille Socialiste site: .

      Though of course centrism did not end with the 1930s: one can trace the influence of the groups from that time on the French PSU, and the contemporary French left, the British ‘Socialist Society’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_Society), Chartist magazine t- cite just a few – and other groups across the world.

      Apparently Souvarine’s final break with the left was in the 50s when he began using the expression, “the free world” (le monde libre).

      There is this on his latter views 1978: http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/souvar/works/1978/stalin.htm

      On John Lewis,

      “Lewis attended Dulwich College and University College London, where he earned his B.Sc. Having been raised a Methodist, he soon left that church to become a Congregationalist. He studied for the ministry at Cambridge, and in 1916 was appointed to a Presbyterian church in Gravesend; in 1924, he moved to a church in Birmingham. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Birmingham, specialising in the philosophy of Karl Marx, and becoming a Marxist himself.
      By 1929, his left wing views were too strong for the church he was in and he moved to Ipswich as a Unitarian minister. Here, his leftist political sermons attracted a large youth following, but upset a group of older, more conservative members. Their complaints led Lewis to offer his resignation, to be put to a vote of the membership. In a packed and charged meeting, he received the support of the majority of church members.
      Political and social activism[edit]

      Lewis participated in anti-war political activity starting in 1916. On one occasion, he had to be rescued from an angry crowd. He also became involved in work to support the unemployed, and served on the local Trades Union Council. On one occasion, at Christmas, he led a group of unemployed men who marched to the Town Hall, where the Mayor was holding his formal Christmas dinner. They walked in and sat down, demanding to join the feast.
      He also was involved with the Boy Scout movement, running a Scout troop, and authoring training booklets. He acted as a guide for outdoor holidays organised by the Holiday Fellowship. He often went to Switzerland, and took parties up the Matterhorn.
      In the 1935 General Election he stood unsuccessfully as Labour candidate for Great Yarmouth.
      Leftist politics[edit]

      The Bolshevik Revolution had a great effect on Lewis, and he studied Russian. He became a Christian Socialist, and later a Marxist.
      In 1936 the Left Book Club, started by the publisher Victor Gollancz, was very popular. Lewis quit his ministry in Ipswich to take on the task of building a national network of discussion groups. The groups brought together in a progressive movement intelligent, literate people who had not found rewarding political action in leftwing parties. Soon there were groups in every town. In effect, the Left Book Club and its groups had become a quasi-political party.
      He also became the editor of the British Marxist journal, The Modern Quarterly, from 1946-1953. He was very interested in polemical writing, and authored many books and articles in a polemical vein on topics of philosophy, social issues, and Marxism. In one exchange of polemics, he took on the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. Althusser’s part of the exchange is the article “Reply to John Lewis”.
      “Reply to John Lewis” first appeared, translated by Grahame Lock, in two numbers of the theoretical and political journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Marxism Today, in October and November 1972. As Althusser himself noted: ” “Reply”: because, a few months earlier (in its January and February numbers of 1972), the same journal had published a long critical article by John Lewis (a British Communist philosopher known for his interventions in political-ideological questions) under the title: “The Althusser Case”.”


      Andrew Coates

      January 31, 2014 at 5:18 pm

  2. Reblogged this on Fahrenheit 451 Used Books and commented:
    A Bookstore at the Vanguard of the Revolution – Non-Fiction and Counter Culture Books for Activists, Students, History Buffs, Wisdom Seekers, Artists, Progressive readers and Revolutionary Minds – fah451bks.com / fah451bks.wordpress.com


    February 1, 2014 at 4:34 pm

  3. Coatesy wrote: Nobody has written a satisfactory history of these organisations.

    not completely true, there is e.g. Willy Buschak’s major work on the London Bureau, the late Hanno Drechsler’s study on the SAPD, works by Karl-Hermann Tjaden and by the beloved Theodor Bergmann (you would like him, despite his soft spot for Liu Shaoqi) on the Brandlerite KPO/IVKO, by Tosstorf on the POUM, by Zimmermann on the Leninbund just to name stuff published in German


    February 3, 2014 at 10:16 am

    • Willy Buschak. Das Londoner Büro. Europäische Linkssozialisten in der Zwischenkriegszeit. Amsterdam 1985

      Drechsler, Hanno, Die Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (SAPD): Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Deutschen Arbeiterbewegung am Ende der Weimarer Republik, Meisenheim am Glan: Hain, 1963

      Theodor Bergmann. Die Thalheimers. Geschichte einer Familie undogmatischer Marxisten. Hamburg 2004.

      In English: Victor Alba, Stephen Schwarz. Spanish Marxism and Soviet Communism, A History of the POUM in the Spanish Civil War, 2009

      There are also books of Pivert – in French.

      Jacques Kergoat, Marceau Pivert, « socialiste de gauche », Éditions de l’Atelier, La part des hommes, 1994.

      I should have been more precise: books in English that give a comparative overview of the different types of ‘centrism’ across Europe.

      Incidentally the history of the Pabloites, and the dissolution of the Tendency, is available on-line.

      Bref aperçu de l’histoire du courant “pabliste” ses suites et ses périphéries en France 1965-1996

      Click to access pablisme-histoire.pdf

      Andrew Coates

      February 3, 2014 at 11:09 am

  4. despite being published already in 1985, Buschak’s book is really a treasure-trove for further references … there is also plenty of stuff about Sneevliet in French and Dutch … studies on the Left Opposition and their sections sadly often neglect those currents in the LO which did not become “Trotskyist”


    February 3, 2014 at 11:51 am

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