Reviving Stalin’s big lie in “Against Trotskyism”

Freedom Road Socialist Organization's broadside

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This is a time of world crises, from the climate to wealth inequality, forced migration, spreading conflicts, dictatorships and fascism. But Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), rather than contribute to honest debate and principled solidarity among radicals in order to build the Left, has chosen to spend its energy publishing a nine-part series “Against Trotskyism” in its Fight Back! News. This broadside revives a century-old smear campaign by Joseph Stalin designed to solidify his takeover of the Soviet Union by attacking V.I. Lenin’s closest collaborator.

In October 1917, Lenin and Leon Trotsky led the earth-shaking event that put workers in control of Russia. After Lenin died in 1924, Stalin maneuvered himself into dictatorial control, overthrowing the fledgling democracy of the workers’ councils (soviets), assassinating Trotsky, and striving to erase him from history.

The truth of these events matters for those who want to make a better world today.

Setting the record straight. Leon Trotsky was a brilliant theoretician, writer, and orator who played a leading role in both the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions. Just one example of Stalin’s charges regurgitated by FRSO includes quotes out of context from a polemic by Lenin against Trotsky from 1914, long before the two became close coworkers. Neither Stalin nor FRSO explains why, if Lenin stood by these sentiments, he welcomed Trotsky into the Bolshevik Party in 1917 and worked closely with him until his own death. With the guidance of the two, workers and their peasant allies went beyond booting out the czar in February 1917, to axing capitalist rule in October.

From 1918 to 1925, Trotsky was commander of the Red Army and instrumental in the new Soviet Union’s victory over 21 capitalist countries during the Russian Civil War. When Stalin took power, Trotsky worked ceaselessly through the Left Opposition to guide the USSR back to its Bolshevik roots.

Stalin framed, tried and executed all the original Bolshevik leaders. He killed two million people in his labor camps and prisons. Millions more starved in the rapid, forced collectivization of agriculture, especially in the Ukraine republic. Trotsky had advocated a gradual, voluntary collectivization.

Freedom Road Socialist Organization follows Mao Zedong, leader of China’s 1949 revolution. Mao followed in Stalin’s authoritarian footsteps. He too caused mass starvation during the Great Leap Forward, an unsuccessful attempt at rapid industrialization in which millions of peasants were prevented from raising crops while forced to labor in primitive mining efforts.

Both Stalin and Mao developed powerful bureaucracies that suppressed democracy and dissent. The main difference between their followers is which dictatorial leader they idolize.

Stalinist class-collaboration. When Stalin took power in the USSR in 1924, the country stood alone in a sea of capitalist countries. Attempts at revolution in Germany and Hungary had failed. But rather than helping build new socialist revolutions abroad, Stalin opportunistically looked for “peaceful coexistence” with global capitalism and betrayed revolutionary struggles around the world.

Marxist revolutionaries of the time overwhelmingly understood that socialism could only succeed as an international system. Stalin agreed with this himself until he found the principle threatening to his top-dog status. As Trotsky said, Stalin’s heel-turn was “compromise with … world capitalism, at the expense of the interests of the broad mass of the workers and the peasant poor.” (“Platform of the Joint Opposition,” 1927.)

Stalin justified his counterrevolution by reviving an outmoded two-stage theory of revolution.

Before 1917, most revolutionary socialists believed that a less developed, semi-feudal nation like Russia would need a period of capitalist development before it could aim for socialism. Trotsky, however, saw a different meaning in the historical situation of Russia and other countries with weak capitalist classes already dominated by imperialism.

His theory of permanent revolution foresaw that even though revolution in a less advanced country might initially be sparked by democratic demands like an end to war, bread for the starving, and land to the peasants, these needs would not be met with the capitalists still in power.

During the course of the revolution, Lenin and other Bolsheviks came to agree with this position, and with Trotsky’s belief that workers were the only class independent and powerful enough, with the support of the peasantry, to defeat the capitalists. But another branch of Russian socialists, the Mensheviks, clung to the two-stage notion, advising the working class to subordinate itself to capitalist rule indefinitely.

This the Mensheviks held to even as workers were demanding that the socialists take over, proving in life the falseness of the rigid two-stages concept. As the socialist uprising of October followed the February overthrow of czarism, Russia condensed the “stage” of capitalist rule into a mere eight months.

Stalinists still use this outworn two-stage theory to rationalize the sabotage of revolutionary upsurges in our time. This was the tragedy of the 1980s South African revolt against apartheid.

Radical anti-racist and labor activists worked closely with the Stalinist South African Communist Party, whose “two stage” commitment strongly influenced the outcome of events. The movement had the power and international support to have ushered in a workers’ state. But instead, Nelson Mandela and his colleagues joined in a bourgeois coalition government. As a result, today, corruption, racism, and class privilege thrive in capitalist South Africa.

Women’s and LGBTQ+ freedom. The only mention of sex oppression in the FRSO articles is that “huge strides were made to promote … gender equality” in the USSR, without distinguishing between Lenin and Trotsky versus Stalin.

As soon as the Bolsheviks took power, they liberalized laws on divorce and abortion and decriminalized homosexuality. Stalin reversed these gains, lauding his “revolutionary nuclear family.” He closed communal kitchens and laundries and “restored criminal punishment for abortions, officially returning women to the status of pack animals,” in Trotsky’s words (“Twenty Years of Stalinist Degeneration,” 1938).

Unable to justify Stalin’s retreat on women’s rights, FRSO chooses silence.

Freedom Road. FRSO’s Stalinist Maoism has led them to disastrous positions. In 2008, they endorsed Black pro-capitalist Barack Obama, the Democratic Party presidential candidate. In Russia’s imperialist attack on Ukraine, they give the ultra-repressive, anti-communist, and vehemently homophobic President Putin a pass, blaming the U.S. entirely. Apparently, Ukrainian national self-determination doesn’t count. All his life, Lenin fought the Russian chauvinism that Putin embodies.

Freedom Socialist Party sides with Trotsky when he concluded in 1937 in “The Beginning of the End” that “Stalinism has become the scourge of the Soviet Union and the leprosy of the world labor movement.” It is time to bury, not revive, this dead-end approach to revolution.

Facing the challenges of today, we need Trotsky’s teachings more than ever: the necessity of working-class independence from capitalism, the understanding that even winning reforms requires a fight for socialism, the importance of defending the most oppressed, the knowledge that this is the era of continually arising revolutions, and more.

Expanded May 26, 2023, from the Freedom Socialist article.

To learn more, read the article “Ukraine: Peace without justice is no peace at all” at socialism.comand visit to find the books The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects; Leon Trotsky: His Life and Ideas; and Socialist Feminism and the Revolutionary Party.

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