Counterfire Trots still banging the anti-Stalin drum

It is with shock but no surprise that we see once again the sacrifices of the USSR in the Patriotic War presented as ‘geopolitical competition’ (a criminal mischaracterisation); the socialism of the Soviet Union denigrated under a meaningless schematic, ‘bureaucratic state capitalism’; and Leon Trotsky held up, not as bureaucrat extraordinaire, but as Bolshevik par excellence – the hard-done-by champion of workers’ democracy and international revolution. This potted history of the Soviet Union takes us, in roughly six hundred words, through a well-worn looking glass.

This essay is styled as an ‘explainer’ – “What went wrong in Russia”. We are told that, on the one hand, the USSR was stymied by a silent internal counter-revolution; on the other, militarised production, and production for military needs, was driven by external exigency – “External priorities decisively shaped Soviet economic policies”. It is no small accomplishment to fit so much incoherence into such a short piece. We cannot lay too much blame on the individual writer, however – this is merely another example of the rich theoretical legacy left by Tony Cliff.

For, to the novice student, Counterfire may appear to have emerged fully-formed – with a slick website, media savvy, and unburdened by the inconvenience of any precise programmatic statements or awkward organisational history – but it does not require Sherlock Holmes to join the dots. This is the Cliffite lifeboat away from the sinking hulk of the SWP, now ten years down the line and very much lost at sea. Cynically spinning fairy-tale history for wide-eyed naïfs remains the business plan. They don’t sweat the details, and they don’t expect any awkward questions.

The idea that the clash between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union can be reductively described as ‘geopolitical competition’ does not belong in rational discourse. What geopolitical objectives did the Soviet Union have, other than the avoidance of utter annihilation? An equivalence is being drawn here, between the imperial bickering of the first world war and the defensive war waged by the Soviet Union in the 1940s, against an invading army with a plan for total population replacement (almost five million dead in resistance to Operation Barbarossa, and over one million in the Battle of Stalingrad alone). The sheer audacity with which the Soviet Union is so casually implicated here – as just one more squabbling imperialist participant in a cynical war of geopolitical maneuver – is beneath contempt.

Their recoil from Stalin is so strong that they will demean the sacrifices of twenty million war dead, tarring them with the same brush as their invaders, just to keep themselves lily-white. Part and parcel of this, as ever, is bizarre ideological contortion – schematics like ‘bureaucratic state capitalism’ – to deny the socialism of the Soviet Union, to repudiate successful struggles for socialism elsewhere, to keep themselves wedded to failure.

Lenin wrote of the possibility of ‘socialism in one country’ in Switzerland in 1915. It was conceptualised as an outcome of the dual realities of uneven capitalist development and the war:

“Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism. Hence, the victory of socialism is possible first in several or even in one capitalist country alone. After expropriating the capitalists and organising their own socialist production, the victorious proletariat of that country will arise against the rest of the world.” [1]

Here, Lenin was considering the very real possibility not merely of a proletarian revolution occurring in a single country, but quite clearly of ‘socialist production’ itself being organised within that country.

Two years later he reflected on the tangible advantage that revolution in the national mode of production had provided to France, in its own time:

“The military power of a country with nationalisation of the banks is higher than of a country with banks that remain in private hands… One always points to the heroic patriotism and the miracles of military courage of the French in the years 1792–93. But one forgets about the…  conditions that precisely made these miracles possible…the transition of the whole country…to a higher mode of production…The example of France tells us one and only one thing: in order to make Russia capable of defence…it is necessary to…renovate, regenerate Russia economically.” [2]

The socialist revolutions in western Europe did not transpire, or did not stick, and it fell to Stalin to uphold this line. It was not the mask worn by a counter-revolutionary ‘bureaucratic state capitalism’ – this useless shibboleth of a degenerated branch of a degenerated tendency. Nor was it an opting-out of the world revolutionary process. It was, in fact, the only means by which that process could possibly have been sustained. What message does the rejection of it send to the world? In the words of Moissaye Olgin, it “says to the workers of every country, ‘You cannot make a revolution alone; you are sure to be defeated; wait till other countries begin; if there is no revolution elsewhere, you are doomed’ – which is tantamount to denying the possibility of any revolution at all.” [3]

The rejection of socialism in one country betrays a cynical and egotistical defeatism, interested less in actual revolution than in opportunities for self-aggrandisement – the modus operandi of its chief spokesman. The very idea that in an alternate timeline Leon Trotsky would have led a ‘revival of soviet democracy and international revolution’ is laughable, and is easily given the lie by one look at his attitudes to workers and their organisations.

Labour organisation was a life-or-death matter for the Soviet Union during hardship of the civil war.  Through the trade unions, workers could be mobilised by persuasion, or by compulsion. Lenin and Stalin, while reserving the option of compulsion, emphasised persuasion. Trotsky, while reserving the option of persuasion, emphasised the option of compulsion. This derived from his petty-bourgeois, contemptuously essentialist view of human nature:

“We are making the first attempt in world-history to organise labour in the interests of the laboring majority itself. This, however, does not exclude the element of compulsion in all its forms, both the most gentle and the extremely severe. The element of State compulsion not only does not disappear from the historical arena, but on the contrary will still play, for a considerable period, an extremely prominent part…As a general rule, man strives to avoid labor. Love for work is not at all an inborn characteristic…One may even say that man is a fairly lazy animal.” [4]

This attitude of course extended to the trade unions themselves. In the trade union debate of 1920-21 it was he who, in his leadership of Tsektran (the Central Committee of the Transport Workers Union), was roundly criticised on his bureaucratic and militaristic vision for the union. To find evidence of this we need not even travel outside Counterfire’s own ideological remit – Tony Cliff himself quotes Trotsky on his attitude toward union activity: “It is quite obvious that it is necessary now to set about the reorganisation of the unions, that is to say, first of all, to pick the directing personnel of the unions” [5]. The workers’ democracy Lenin wanted re-established as quickly as possible would, Trotsky argues, lead to “…a disruption in the relations among factories and plants, to the destruction of the centralised economic machinery, and to the loss of the Party’s leading influence over the trade unions, as well as over the economy” [6].

He warned the Workers’ Opposition about “making a fetish of the principles of democracy. They seem to have placed the workers’ right to elect their representatives above the party, as though the party did not have the right to defend its dictatorship even if that a dictatorship were to clash for a time with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy” [5]. This is a passage Cliff states would ‘haunt’ Trotsky in later years – yet we see the same attitude in 1938 (“the section of the Fourth International should always strive…to renew the top leadership of the trade unions”). It puzzles the mind why Cliff’s acolytes continue to haunt us with their warmed-over lies.

Trotsky betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of workers as individuals, their organisations, and the relationship of the party to both. It is a misunderstanding carried on by his followers today. “Many trade unionists tend to cultivate a spirit of hostility” – this was what he took from the Tsektran experience! Lenin’s response was to the point:

“This is monstrous. Only someone in the lunatic fringe can say a thing like that…If the Party falls out with the trade unions, the fault lies with the Party, and this spells certain doom for the Soviet power. We have no other mainstay but the millions of proletarians, who may not be class conscious, are often ignorant, backward and illiterate, but who, being proletarians, follow their own Party. For twenty years they have regarded this Party as their own… Nothing can ruin us but our own mistakes…If we cause a split, for which we are to blame, everything will collapse because the trade unions are not only an official institution, but also the source of all our power.” [7]

Stalin concurred: “Obviously, only ‘normal methods of proletarian democracy in the unions’, only methods of persuasion, can make it possible to unite the working class.” [8]

To not merely denigrate the achievements of the Soviet Union in the face of encirclement and existential threat, but to raise up Trotsky as the poster-boy of a democratic workers’ alternative? Abject nonsense, that flies in the face even of Tony Cliff’s own professed mantra, ‘Revolutionaries need to tell the truth’.

So what is the reader to gather from this? What went wrong in Russia, according to Counterfire’s “analysis”? Was it domestic so-called ‘bureaucratic state capitalism’ that drove the USSR’s preparations for war? Or the desperate need to protect socialism in the face of yet another unwanted bloody conflict? They cannot answer this, nor do they even want to. With the figure of Leon Trotsky, they have a magic wand to wave at history as they wonder: “If only…”

This, too, is their take on communism in the present day. ‘Socialists’ who don’t like the look of socialism, ‘revolutionaries’ who run from the scent of revolution, more comfortable with – addicted to – defeat, they may be one hundred years removed from the fickle narcissism and juvenile cliquery of their spiritual founder, but their refusal to give up the ghost means Lenin’s warning against Trotsky in May 1917 still needs reiterating: we must be “hard as stone in pursuing the proletarian line against the petty-bourgeois vacillations” [3].

We do not seek to live in the past, nor to repeat it. We seek to understand it – to celebrate victories won, to remember sacrifices made, and, when necessary, to assign blame where it is truly due. This lazily cobbled-together narrative of the twentieth century wouldn’t satisfy a GCSE examiner, and shouldn’t satisfy a young student of Marxism.


[1] V. I. Lenin, On the Slogan for a United States of Europe, Sotsial-Demokrat, August 23, 1915.

[2] V. I. Lenin, ‘The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat it’, September 1917

[3] Moissaye Olgin, Trotskyism – Counter-Revolution in Disguise, 1935.

[4] Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, 1920

[5] Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution, 1990

[6] Leon Trotsky, On the Role and Tasks of Trade Unions; Draft resolution for the Tenth Congress. March 14, 1921

[7] V. I. Lenin, Speech to the Second All-Russia Congress of Miners, Jan. 23 1921

[8] J.V. Stalin, Our Disagreements, Pravda, Jan. 19 1921