England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

100 years since the founding of the Left Opposition: What is the relevance of the fight against Stalin today?

By Drew Walton, Socialist Alternative Leicester

2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Left Opposition. The Left Opposition was formed in order to try to rebuild Marxist democracy within the Russian Communist Party – initially in the open and later underground. When this was no longer possible, as activists were spied on by the secret police and purged, Trotskyists saw the need to build a Fourth International – a movement of ordinary people around the world, united under the common aim of bringing down capitalism and bringing about a genuinely socialist society.

You could imagine (perhaps in the form of a computer game, or a “choose your own adventure” novel) an alternate world, set in the year 1930, where the Bolshevik Party, who led the nascent Russian Revolution, was able to link up with the wave of working-class movements internationally, following the inspirational revolution of 1917. In such a scenario, the USSR did not have to defend itself against a bloody civil war, aided by the forces of capitalism. In this world, confident in their revolutionary ideals and appealing to the international working class, Trotsky and his followers were not purged and expelled, flung in prison or exiled, but instead led a powerful faction of the party, overcoming Stalin, and appealed to workers worldwide to build an international force capable of replacing capitalism with a society built on equality, peace and a genuine workers’ democracy. In this fantasy, the uprising in Germany led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht was not brutally put down by the predecessor of Hitler’s Gestapo, but was able to freely combine with a democratic Soviet Russia, providing a solid starting point for the revolutions to spread to other countries.

However, we have to confront reality, and this is emphatically not what happened. The twentieth century saw protracted conflict, the coming to power of the Nazis and betrayals of the ideals of the Russian Revolution. We are still living with the consequences of this. It is essential, therefore, to describe and analyse past events, in order to avoid repeating the same mistaken policies in the future.

Internationalism and workers democracy

In 1923, Lenin, having suffered a severe stroke, and becoming increasingly frail, dictated his Last Testament, which was deeply critical of Stalin, pointing out that he “has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands”. However, this was never formally made public until 1956. This formed part of a political struggle prepared by Lenin against Stalin in the run-up to the Bolshevik Party congress, where Lenin was “preparing a bombshell”. 

For democracy to function, there needs to be transparency about what the government is doing, and leaders must be able to be held accountable. Politics needs to accommodate different and competing ideas, which can win by debate and argument. The public needs to be aware of different ideas and information must be disseminated fairly, to allow people to make up their minds freely. Stalin attempted to whitewash the Marxist principles of internationalism and workers’ democracy out of history.

Only the working class acting internationally has the power to end capitalism. It is also necessary to allow free and open debate. The German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote “There is no democracy without socialism and no socialism without democracy”. Russia today is in the grips of the murderous Putin dictatorship, which stifles political dissent and imprisons activists including ISA members. It is important to realise that actions like these come not from a position of strength, but rather of weakness.

In opposition to Trotsky, Stalin enthusiastically advocated the idea of Bukharin, that socialism was possible in one country, that since the German revolution had failed, Russia was in danger and that only by isolating itself could the gains of socialism be defended. This logic was also applied internally in the USSR, brutally shutting down any opposition, and allowing no space for freedom of speech. As the Comintern (the official Soviet “international”) fell in behind official policy of the USSR, betrayals of Stalinist agents during the Spanish Civil War ushered in decades of fascist rule by Franco, and Trotsky himself was assassinated in Mexico in 1940. The ideals of the revolution were to be betrayed again in Hungary during workers’ uprisings in 1956 and Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring of 1968, both of which were crushed by Soviet tanks.

Another important principle which Socialist Alternative upholds, is that workers’ leaders need to be on a worker’s wage. We have seen the dodgy dealings of Rishi Sunak, whose wife owns shares in a childcare company, which directly benefited from the Tories’ March budget. Politics cannot be just a career choice, it should be about raising the living standards of the entire working class and having representatives that are genuinely accountable to the movements that support them. In the USSR, this was conveniently forgotten as a comfortable layer of bureaucrats developed, with privileges denied to ordinary workers. This applies also to the trade unions today – elected representatives would fight all the harder for the workers they represent if they were on the same income as them! 

The need for a new workers’ party

A true workers’ democracy would be built from the bottom up rather than the top down, as was the case in the early years of the Russian Revolution before the Stalinist degeneration. The Russian word “soviet” simply means “council”. The people best placed to make decisions and run a workplace are, paradoxically, the lowest paid, those on the shop floor, with direct experience of their job and ideas on how things could be done differently. The rule of profit is leading to jobs being ‘deskilled’, or replaced by artificial intelligence and computers. With advances in technology, the working week could be reduced, but instead this is used to drive down wages and make more profit for a tiny elite, while the majority struggle with long hours and precarious, zero-hour employment in order to make ends meet.

Yet the traditions of debate and international democracy, of workers’ control and socialism go on. Revolutionary socialists argue, as the examples of Corbyn and Salvador Allende in Chile demonstrate, that attempts to reform away the excesses of this rotten system are ultimately futile. We have to fight in the here and now, to win new reforms and defend what has been won in the past, such as what remains of the NHS and public services, but we also need to point to revolutionary change as the only way to fundamentally change society.

When workers have been thwarted on a political level, they often look to trade unions to defend their interests. It is not surprising, therefore, that we sawa wave of strike action against the Tories over the last two years, and demands for living wages, as people fight to roll back two decades of austerity.

Socialist Alternative, organising in over 35 countries internationally, continues to fight in the interests of working people. We are the inheritors of the tasks which Trotsky outlined 100 years ago, and these are ever more urgent now. Capitalism is putting profit before everything else. Sunak does a U-turn on Boris Johnson’s meaningless pledges from COP 26 for “net zero”, even as Siberian forest fires rage, Antarctic sea-ice melts, and vast swathes of our planet are being put at risk. Only a democratic, socialist planned economy, built on an international basis offers a possible way out for humanity.

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