Note on Stalinism and Trotskyism
For those who are not familiar with the international political background of Ngo Van’s story, it may be helpful to make a few remarks about Stalinism and Trotskyism and to outline some of the twists and turns of the Third International under Stalin’s control.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 consisted of two relatively distinct stages. The February revolution was a series of largely spontaneous popular struggles beginning in February and continuing over the next several months; the October revolution was essentially a coup d’état carried out by the Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. The Bolsheviks had a reputation as radical revolutionaries, due in part to their having been one of the few leftist groups to oppose World War I; but once in power they repressed grassroots radical tendencies and morphed into a new ruling class. Although they changed their name to Communist Party in 1918, the system they created had nothing to do with communism in the true sense of the word; it was simply a cruder and more concentrated version of capitalism. Private ownership was replaced by state ownership, but capitalism itself (the system of commodified social relations) was in no way eliminated. The workers who were formerly exploited by a multitude of private capitalists were now exploited by a single all-owning capitalist enterprise: the state. Although this process was complex and gradual, the transformation had become pretty clear by 1921 when the revolutionary Kronstadt sailors were crushed by the Communist regime under the direct leadership of Trotsky. (See Voline’s The Unknown Revolution and Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control: 1917-1921.)
Following Lenin’s death in 1924, the Communist Party faction led by Stalin became increasingly powerful, to the point that Trotsky was put on the defensive and eventually expelled from the Party and forced into exile. Stalin then imposed the various internal totalitarian developments which will not be discussed here since they are generally well known — police-state dictatorship, forced collectivization, Gulag labor camps, show trials, etc. (Good accounts of this process include Boris Souvarine’s Stalin: A Critical Survey of Bolshevism, Ante Ciliga’s The Russian Enigma, and Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary.)
The Stalinist regime also exerted a malignant influence on radical movements in other countries all over the world. The Third International (a.k.a. Communist International or Comintern) had been formed in Moscow in 1919 to unite revolutionary communist parties around the world, after most of the socialist parties of the Second International had betrayed their socialist and internationalist principles by rallying to their respective governments during World War I. Under Stalin’s control, the Comintern became increasingly centered on the goal of defending Stalin’s regime at all costs. To this end, over the next two decades it imposed a succession of zigzagging policies on the subservient Communist parties in other countries, most of which worked out disastrously.
Following some adventurist debacles in the early 1920s (Germany 1923, Estonia 1924, etc.), the Comintern shifted to a defensive policy of compromises and alliances with various bourgeois forces around the world. The most dramatic failure of this policy was in China in 1925-1927. At the very moment when radical workers were attaining significant victories in the major cities of China, Stalin insisted that the Chinese Communist Party subordinate itself to the Guomindang, the nationalist party led by General Chiang Kai-shek. When the workers of Shanghai had taken over the city in April 1927, the Communist leaders thus urged them to welcome Chiang Kai-shek’s army and to turn in all their weapons. When they did so, Chiang’s army entered the city and massacred the radical workers by the thousands. (See Harold Isaacs’s The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution.) This catastrophic result of Stalin’s policy, which Trotsky had accurately predicted and sought to prevent, was undoubtedly an important factor in accounting for the readiness of Vietnamese radicals to rally to Trotskyist positions in the following years.
In 1928 Stalin imposed another policy change, arguing that, after the initial post-World War I period of revolutionary upsurges (1917-1923) and then the ebbing, defensive period (1924-1928), the international workers’ movement had entered a new Third Period in which radical revolutions were once again on the agenda. The primary enemy was now supposedly the socialist parties, which the Stalinists referred to as social-fascists. Following this policy, the German Communist Party focused on attacking the German socialists while largely ignoring the Nazis, thereby helping pave the way for the Nazis’ seizure of power in 1933 (which soon led to the destruction of both the socialists and Communists in Germany).
In 1935 the Comintern line flipped to an opposite extreme. Now it was supposedly necessary to ally with the socialists, and in fact with just about anyone who wasn’t outrightly fascist, including centrist and even conservative parties, to form a united front against fascism. This policy led to the victory of Popular Front governments in Spain and France in 1936. But the radical currents that had supported those fronts now found themselves compromised, their hands tied due to their alliances with more centrist forces. On the Spanish Popular Front, see Note 2. In France, the Popular Front government, pressured by a nationwide wave of strikes and factory occupations, passed some progressive legislation (40-hour week, paid vacations, right to strike, etc.), but did nothing to eliminate French colonialism and scarcely anything even to improve conditions in the colonies beyond a few minor reforms that were mostly not implemented. This put the Vietnamese Stalinists in the awkward position of having to defend the French colonial regime that they had been fighting so desperately for so long.
Then the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 caused yet another zigzag. Now the focus was once again on the struggle against France, while the menace of fascism was played down (although Nazi Germany was on the verge of invading France and Japan was on the verge of invading Indochina).
Then, when Hitler double-crossed Stalin by invading Russia in 1941, it was once again a war against fascism. The Vietnamese Stalinists thus once again found themselves allied with their French colonial masters (although the colonial regime in Indochina was pro-Vichy and thus more or less allied with the fascists).
Then, in the power vacuum following the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, at a time when the Vietnamese people were in a position to prevent any significant French forces from reentering the country (France was recovering from years of Nazi occupation and demoralized by the Vichy regime’s collaboration with the Nazis, and most of its armed forces were half way around the world), the Stalinist leader Ho Chi Minh made a succession of compromises with the Americans, the British, the Chinese and the French, which enabled him to augment his power, destroy the Trotskyists and other potential rivals, and assume total control over the nationalist forces, but which at the same time enabled the French forces to reenter the country, thereby leading to thirty more years of war to obtain the national independence that might well have been won in 1945. Only in 1975 was the country finally liberated from its foreign masters — while remaining subject to an indigenous Stalinist dictatorship.
Most of these Stalinist policies had been sharply criticized by Trotsky. From around 1923-1934 Trotsky and his followers referred to themselves as the Left Opposition, meaning an opposition within the Russian Communist Party, attempting to recapture power from the Stalinist faction so as to turn the party back into a revolutionary and internationalist direction. After being expelled from the Russian party in 1928, they turned their attention to Communist parties in other countries and to the Third International. This strategy proved equally unsuccessful as Trotskyist tendencies were systematically eliminated from the Stalin-dominated parties around the world. By 1933 or 1934 most Trotskyists had concluded that the Third International had gone hopelessly astray and that it was necessary to form a Fourth International. This took place in 1938 (which is why some interim groups such as Ngo Van’s League of Internationalist Communists referred to themselves as for the Construction of the Fourth International”).
It would be far too tedious to discuss the complex differences among the numerous Trotskyist groups and tendencies from the 1930s to the present day. Suffice it to say that since Trotsky was himself directly implicated in the process of the Communist Party becoming a counterrevolutionary force within Russia, and since he never recognized that that party had evolved into a new bureaucratic ruling class, his attempts to push the party to resume a revolutionary international policy were bound to fail. Trotsky was doomed by his basic perspective, because once the bureaucracy became aware that it had evolved into a counterrevolutionary class on the domestic front, it was bound to opt for a similarly counterrevolutionary role in other countries (Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle #112). This is why Trotskyist polemics, however radical they may seem in some regards, always end up floundering back into the same lame conclusion: Stalinism is criticized in many ways, but in the final analysis it is still considered to be progressive. Stalinist regimes are referred to as degenerated workers’ states or deformed workers’ states, implying that the socio-economic system is basically fine, it’s just that it is poorly guided by a faulty political leadership which needs to be replaced by a correct leadership à la Lenin and Trotsky. Trotskyists fail to recognize the origins of Stalinism in the earlier authoritarian practices of Lenin and Trotsky and in the hierarchical structure of the Bolshevik Party, which had already inaugurated the new state-capitalist system well before Stalin came to power.
It should be noted that none of these political tendencies have much connection with Marx, despite the fact that they all claim to be Marxist. One of the reasons that Ngo Van appreciated Maximilien Rubel was that he convincingly showed how Leninism and Trotskyism (to say nothing of Stalinism) diverge significantly from Marx’s actual views. While Marx had well-known differences with some of the anarchists of his time, his perspective was in reality much closer to anarchism than to any of the varieties of state socialism. The prevalence of statist Marxism during the last century has tended to drown out other currents of Marxism that are closer to Marx (and to the more coherent strands of anarchism), such as Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, Karl Korsch, Socialisme ou Barbarie, and the Situationist International.
This text by Ken Knabb is one of the appendixes in Ngo Van’s book In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary (AK Press, 2010).