August 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard
History is a weapon in the hands of a Socialist party. But for capitalist parties it is just an embarrassment, especially when the record of their own blunders and compromises is recalled. Apart from minor errors, our party's analysis of political events and social developments has been correct throughout the sixty odd years we have been working for Socialism. The pamphlets and the articles in the Socialist Standard which our early members were writing before the first world war still make impressive reading today. Take just one example, this appraisal of state-capitalism which some French social-democrats were advocating as a step towards Socialism years before Lenin seized power in Russia :
"They are for State capitalism or collective exploitation. We are not concerned with State capitalism. Consequently State capitalism cannot be the ideal of any Socialist. Ergo those who preach State capitalism or collective exploitation are not Socialists." (Socialist Standard, December 1906)
Reformist organisations, on the other hand, prefer to forget many of their earlier publications—simply because their theories and strategies now look ridiculous in retrospect. Thus the 'Socialist' Labour Party, which is currently denouncing the Soviet Union as a "bureaucratic despotism", published Lenin's State and Revolution back in 1919 under its subtitle of "Marxist teaching on the State and the task of the Proletariat in the Revolution." Another example is Trotsky's Where is Britain Going? which the 'Communist' party brought out in 1926, shortly before its author fell from grace. Palme Dutt's review of this book, written a few months before he became a rabid Stalinist, now makes amusing reading. He said: "A challenge may safely be issued to the critics to name a single book by a single English author or politician, 'bourgeois or Labour leader, which is as close to the essentials of the English situation as Trotsky's book. It can-not be done."-(Labour Monthly, 1926-quoted in B. Pearce's Early History of the Communist Party of G.B.)
Where is Britain Going? has been republished by the 'Socialist' Labour League because of its "remarkable" qualities. It is therefore interesting to see how the ideas expressed in it have, stood the test of time.
Certain of Trotsky's predictions are now only worth mentioning because of their period flavour. For example, he was anticipating an outbreak of hostilities between America and Britain on the grounds that "the fundamental antagonism of the world" was that between these two countries. In fact, there was nothing unorthodox about Trotsky's position on this point. At the time this was the official Comintern assessment and, when Karl Radek reported along these lines to the executive committee of the Communist International in 1923, his speech was reprinted by Communist parties under the title 'The International Outlook'.
What really interests us, however, are Trotsky's ideas on Socialism and the form which a Socialist revolution will take in Britain. Like the rest of Lenin's followers he was committed to the unscientific notion that "socialism is nothing 'but state capitalist monopoly made to benefit the whole people". He made it quite clear that, if the Communist party gained control in Britain, the military arm of the State would persist for "many years ahead" and that production would continue to be geared to the market, with "the exchange of goods, products, and services between . . . complementary countries . . . (our emphasis). For some reason, which he never got round to explaining, all this "would raise to an unheard- of height the material and mental well-being of the working classes …”
Trotsky wrote this book in April, 1925 when there had been only one Labour government in Britain. The sorry mess that MacDonald had made of things during 1924 convinced Trotsky that the rank and file members of the Labour party would push for more radical policies and that "a great deal less time will be necessary to turn the Labour Party into a revolutionary party than was needed for its creation." The first Labour government had been in the minority in the House of Commons and, since this prevented it from pushing through any major reforms, it mainly restricted its activity to threatening striking workers and 'building warships. Apparently Trotsky felt there was revolutionary potential in such a programme because he summed up the 1924 government in the following terms: "The first experience of the Labour Government with all its paltry lack of talent was none the less an important historic warning for the ruling classes." How much nearer the mark was Clynes, one of the right- wing Labour leaders whom Trotsky attacked, when he reminisced about the same administration: "There was nothing in: the Labour Government's record of 1924 to which any Liberal could turn with real disfavour ."
Trotsky mocked the Labour leaders also because they refused to use violent methods. This nonsense he was sure would be knocked out of the Labour Party when it found itself with a majority in Parliament and eager to push through the nationalisation of basic industries. It is obvious from what he wrote that he completely failed to understand the nature of nationalisation and even went so far as to imagine that it represented an attack on private property. He emphasised that there could be no peaceful takeover by the State because "only an utter fool may not comprehend that the bourgeoisie will bring into action heaven, earth and the infernal regions in the event of the' actual coming to power of a Labour Government." History, of course, has made Trotsky look the "utter fool."
The 1945 Labour government, with its massive majority, did enforce a number of state capitalist reforms of the type which Lenin himself had been demanding immediately prior to the October revolution (nationalisation of banks, coal etc.) The capitalist class, with a good deal more sense than Trotsky, recognised these for what they were — a reorganisation of property society which left its basis unaffected. In fact, Lenin had pointed this out years before in his The Threatening Catastrophe and How to Avoid It—written between September 23-27, 1917. There he talked about nationalisation in general and of the banks in particular: "If nationalisation of the banks is so often confused with confiscation of private property, the dissemination of this confusion of terms is to be blamed on the bourgeois press, to whose interest it is to deceive the public." Clearly it was not just the general public, the 'masses' of whom Lenin has such a low opinion, who were deceived but one of the top leaders of the supposedly omniscient, revolutionary vanguard itself.
Apart from wild predictions about the revolutionary prospects of the Labour party, the main task which Trotsky set himself was to wean the working class of its respect for bourgeois democracy. The limited democracy which workers have won for themselves under capitalism (the vote, freedom to organise trade unions and workers' parties) is dismissed by him as a mirage—"Between its own property and the revolutionary proletariat the bourgeoisie raises the screen of democracy." In his anxiety to emphasise this point Trotsky repeatedly contradicts himself; thus on page 89 universal suffrage is contemptuously dismissed as "the asses' gate erected . . . by the bourgeoisie", while on the previous page he admits that “in the period of Chartism and right down to 1868 the workers in Britain were completely deprived of electoral rights…" Significantly, he fails to explain why the capitalist class should wish to deprive workers of "the asses' gate" supposedly erected by itself.
The Communist party of 1926 was ready to publish Trotsky's work because at this time his name still carried the prestige of one who had led a successful revolution. But the question is--what sort of revolution? The Bolshevik uprising of October 1917 marked the final destruction of the remnants of feudal power in Russia and the ground was then cleared for the country to industrialise on a state capitalist basis. Trotsky's political experience was of a capitalist revolution and he looked at England through the eyes of the bourgeois revolutionary. His conception of political organisation was exactly that which Engels had dismissed as being already outdated in 1895—"conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses".
His advice to the working class in Britain was that they should take on the capitalist state in an armed insurrection. The Socialist Party of Great Britain claimed that such a course would be suicidal. We argued that the first stage in a Socialist revolution is for workers to use their vote as a class weapon in order to capture political power. This done, and with the State in its hands, the working class can set about stripping the capitalist class of its wealth. The workers in Britain in 1926 were not Socialists, but the fact that they rejected the Bolshevik strategy of attempting a putsch proved that they had more political insight than Trotsky and adventurers like him.
Leadership grows out of ignorance. But, as Trotsky clearly showed, ignorant followers produce even more ignorant leaders.