Leon Trotsky – leader with Lenin of the 1917 Russian Revolution and organiser of the Red Army that defeated the imperialist invasion against it – was assassinated fifty years ago, on 20 August 1940, on the orders of Stalin, who had become ruler of the Soviet Union.

To his death, Trotsky fought against capitalism and for socialism – and therefore against the privileged bureaucracy led by Stalin which usurped power from the working class in the first workers’ state.

Stalinism buried Trotsky physically 50 years ago – but his ideas live on, and their power is increasingly confirmed. They provide keys not only to understanding the tasks for our movement in South Africa, but to the rapidly changing situation in the world today.

Central in this are the earth-shattering developments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Soviet Union

In 1985 Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union saying he would “renew socialism” through perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (political openness). He denounced the crimes of Stalin and the economic stagnation which had developed under Brezhnev. But what has been the result?

Last year in Eastern Europe, mass revolts against chronic corruption and dictatorial rule toppled Communist Party governments. Now the Soviet Union faces unprecedented crisis. The economy is in worse shape than ever. Basic commodities are scarce or unobtainable in the shops. A revolt of the nationalities and of the Soviet working class is simmering. The Communist Party is losing credibility and heading towards a split.

On July 1 East Germany established monetary union with West Germany. Political re-integration will follow. This is a capitalist counter-revolution. Non-Communist governments in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia are charting a course towards the restoration of capitalism. Gorbachev’s government itself is now taking measures towards dismantling the planned economy, measures likely to involve sweeping price rises, and job losses of up to 10 million.

Since 1917 the Russian Revolution has been an inspiration to millions struggling against oppression and exploitation. By overthrowing capitalism, and replacing it with state ownership and economic planning, the Soviet Union was able to rise from backwardness to become a super-power. Now it, and the regimes in Eastern Europe which modelled themselves on it, are in crisis – and turning back to capitalism.

This is a shattering blow for many working people in South Africa and around the world. Is there no escape from the tyranny of capitalism? Have we lost an example and a support in our struggle to transform our lives?

Almost daily in the last months, bourgeois journalists have been writing obituaries of socialism and Marxism, and congratulating themselves on the superiority of the capitalist system. Now this same message is echoed by leaders of ‘Communist’ parties in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union themselves.

Has socialism really failed? Is Marxism really discredited?

Not socialism

In reality, it is not socialism that is in crisis. Despite what their rulers have claimed, the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe are not socialist societies.

A precondition for socialism is workers’ democracy. The mighty impulse towards socialism provided by the workers’ revolution in Russia in October 1917 could not be carried through. This revolution degenerated in isolation. Workers’ democracy, one of the essential preconditions for socialism, was suppressed by a privileged and parasitic bureaucratic dictatorship headed by Stalin.

Bureaucratic rule over the planned economy was the system which consolidated itself in the Soviet Union, and later in Eastern Europe, China, and other countries of the “Third World”. The crisis in these countries is a crisis of this system: a crisis of Stalinism. Genuine socialism has yet to be put to the test.

The Communist Parties in these countries are instruments of the rule of these bureaucracies, who – despite their lip-service to Marx, Engels and Lenin – long ago turned their backs on genuine Marxism.

Trotsky explained the nature of these regimes. He explained why Stalin’s political counter-revolution had taken place, and how it could be overcome.

For opposing Stalinism, tens of thousands of Trotsky’s supporters -the cream of the Bolshevik Party -were persecuted, sent to concentration camps, and slaughtered. Trotsky’s ideas were slandered, and his writings banned. The bureaucracy tried to write him out of history. He was deported from the Soviet Union, and later murdered.

But, as we aim to show in this pamphlet, it is through Trotsky and not the “Marxist” bureaucrats of so-called ‘Communist’ Parties, that the genuine legacy of Marx, Engels and Lenin, has been passed down to us today.

Trotsky’s ideas reaffirm the validity of Marxism in the modern world. Taken up and applied by the working class, these ideas can achieve socialism on this planet.

Forces of production

Like Marx, Engels, and Lenin, Trotsky maintained that the development of the forces of production, and of the productivity of human labour, is the key to understanding society.

The progressive role of capitalism, Marx and Engels explained in the 1840s, lay in its ability to over-come traditional fetters on production – and to revolutionise technique, machinery, and production to expand the wealth at the disposal of society.

But capitalism is also based on oppression and exploitation. The capitalists, as owners of the means of production, derive their profits from the labour of the working class.

Eventually, Marx and Engels said, the social relations of capitalism (private ownership of production and the nation-state) would come to obstruct further development of the productive forces. To free them from these obstacles it would be necessary for the producers of wealth – the working class – to overthrow capitalism and take control of production and society.

Achieved on an international basis, this would open the way towards socialism and communism – to a society based on the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”, to a society in which classes and the state would disappear.

Need for socialism

Notwithstanding the huge growth of the productive forces since then, the need for workers’ revolution and socialism is more urgent than ever.

Today a relative handful of multi-national monopolies, owned by a tiny minority of individuals, dominate the world economy. During the 1980s, the wealth of the 400 richest American capitalists tripled. There are 50 of them who are ‘worth’ more than $1 billion.

In capitalist countries in the “Third World”, according to the World Bank, a quarter of the world’s population endure chronic poverty and starvation. The number of the poor is rising. If capitalism survives, the devastating famines of Ethiopia and the Sudan will repeat themselves.

The upheavals since the start of this year in Africa, poorest continent, reveal the desperation of the masses for a transformation of their lives. Since January, riot police have gone into the streets to suppress mass protest in the Ivory Coast, Zambia, Gabon, Benin, Zaire, and Kenya.

In the advanced capitalist countries, even after eight years of economic upturn, 26 million are unemployed. In the United States, one of the richest economies, 3 million live on the streets, and 32 million exist below the official poverty line. The average worker in the US has not seen his or her real income improve for more than 20 years.

Financial speculation by capitalist parasites has reached unparalleled proportions. The money that changes hands in stock market and currency dealing, in “buy-outs”, etc, exceeds by ten or twenty times world trade in real goods, or what is productively re-invested.

A system based on profit is in staggering contradiction with the needs of the ordinary people.

Despite “arms limitation” agreements, huge amounts of wealth are squandered in production and purchase of arms in many countries. ‘Small’ wars and bloody national conflicts simmer around the planet.

The threat of nuclear catastrophe has for the moment receded. But it is replaced by the nightmare of ecological disaster as the result of capitalism’s unbridled thirst for profits, and bureaucratic mismanagement of the economy in the East.

The anarchy of the system of private ownership of the means of production means that the threat of renewed recession or depression hangs over all living under capitalism. Even in the most advanced capitalist countries there is the spectre of rocketing unemployment and greater poverty, together with increasingly ferocious trade wars between the main blocs (the United States, Japan, and Europe), and greater devastation of the “Third World”.

The world cries out for democratically-planned economy on an international scale, turning production to serving the needs of all working people.

Crisis of Stalinism

Marx and Engels had expected that the working class would take power in most industrialised countries, and be able to carry through the transition to communism on the basis of the most developed productive forces achieved under capitalism.

“The material premise of communism”, explained Trotsky in 1936 in his classic analysis of Stalinism, The Revolution Betrayed, “should be so high a development of the economic powers of man that productive labour, having ceased to be a burden, will not require any goad [compulsion], and the distribution of life’s goods, existing in continual abundance, will not demand… any control except that of education, habit and social opinion.”

But, as events developed, the working class first took power in backward Russia. Lenin and Trotsky explained the need to spread socialist revolution to the more advanced countries, even to ensure the survival of working class power in Russia. They launched the Third (Communist) International as the instrument for international revolution.

There was a tidal wave of revolution in Europe, but it was defeated. The Russian revolution remained isolated, in a backward society. This was why the bureaucracy led by Stalin could usurp power from the working class.

“Inadequate technique and culture”; “low national productive forces”, backwardness, explained Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed, led to the rise of the bureaucracy.

The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there are enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there are few goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy.


The bureaucracy formed a parasitic caste, using the state to maintain its privilege to suppress the working masses. It established a totalitarian dictatorship – a workers’ state monstrously deformed in ways wholly unanticipated by Marx, Engels or Lenin.

Stalin and the bureaucracy retreated from proletarian internationalism to the false idea that “socialism” could be achieved within the confines of the Soviet Union itself.

The superiority of nationalisation and planning over capitalism, Trotsky explained, would allow the economic development of the Soviet Union, even under the rule of the bureaucracy, though at huge cost to the people. But eventually this economy would seize up and stagnate, as the productive forces came up against the barriers imposed by bureaucratic diktat, and its self-imposed limits of so-called “socialism” within the national regime.

The world economy had become an integrated whole. Within the limits of one country, Trotsky warned, it would be impossible to catch up with, let alone surpass, the level of the forces of production achieved under capitalism. For this reason, the possibility of a restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union could not be excluded.

Trotsky remorselessly combatted the false idea of “socialism in one country” as an abandonment of proletarian internationalism. This false idea, he explained, was the national bureaucracy’s ideological defence of its privileged rule. Needing to maintain its power over the working class at home, it would become opposed to working-class revolution any-where.

To re-open the route to socialism the bureaucracy would have to be overthrown by the working class, with a program of workers’ democracy and internationalism.

Trotsky’s defence of socialism against Stalinism is today wholly vindicated. It is proved, not by predictions in books, but in the crippling paralysis of the economy of the Soviet Union after more than 70 years of so-called “socialism”. It is proved in the blind turn of the bureaucracies in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union back towards capitalism.

But the bureaucracy must still reckon with the mighty power of the working class in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, as yet only beginning to stir in revolt.

Armed with the ideas of Marxism, the working class in the East can reverse the turn towards capitalism and re-open the way to socialism.

SA Communist Party

Despite what is now happening in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, many black workers and youth in South Africa still look to the SA Communist Party as the guarantor of the revolutionary interests of the working class within the Congress movement.

If the SACP could fulfil this role, we would be the first to welcome that. But it is impossible. As Trotsky explained in the 1920s, the Communist Parties which were the heirs of Stalin’s Comintern would all inevitably degenerate into policies of national reformism and collaboration with capitalism. They would abandon the ideas and methods of Marxism. This has proved to be the case.

Now unbanned, the SACP claims that it has cast off the legacy of Stalinism. A recent pamphlet by their General Secretary, comrade Joe Slovo, states that the “commandist and bureaucratic approaches which took root during Stalin’s time affected communist parties throughout the world, including our own. We cannot disclaim our share of the responsibility for the spread of the personality cult and a mechanical embrace of Soviet domestic and foreign policies, some of which discredited the cause of socialism.” (Has Socialism Failed. His emphasis)

His pamphlet was written in response to “the dramatic collapse of most of the communist party governments of Eastern Europe” in 1989.

Their downfall, he admits, “was brought about through massive upsurges which had the support not only of the majority of the working class but also a large slice of the membership of the ruling parties themselves. These were popular revolts against unpopular regimes; if socialists are unable to come to terms with this reality, the future of socialism is indeed bleak.” (His emphasis)

He also concedes the “mounting chronicle of crimes and distortions”, “economic failures”, and the absence of democracy in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Slovo’s declared aim is to defend the ideas of socialism and Marxism. He states that “the fundamental distortions which exist in the practice of existing socialism cannot be traced to the essential tenets of Marxist revolutionary science. If we are looking for culprits, we must look at ourselves and not at the founders of Marxism.”

But, he continues, “we can legitimately claim that in certain fundamental respects our indigenous revolutionary practice long ago ceased to be guided by Stalinist concepts.”

Yet his pamphlet wholly fails to provide an honest Marxist explanation of why Stalinism exists and what is required in order to overcome it. It is written as if Trotsky’s pioneering Marxist analysis of Stalinism never existed. And Slovo persists in describing these Stalinist regimes as “socialist”. He regards their bureaucratic rulers as sincere, if sometimes misguided, Marxists.

He couples the bureaucrat Gorbachev’s name with that of the great revolutionary Lenin, and refers fawningly to “the process of perestroika and glasnost which was so courageously unleashed under Gorbachev’s inspiration.”

The SACP is still organically wedded to the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy and its false, anti-working-class ideas.

As we shall show in this pamphlet, Slovo’s explanation of what has gone wrong in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe merely echoes the views of the “renewed” bureaucracy led by Gorbachev – a bureaucracy which is now turning towards re-introduction of capitalism to try to head off revolution by the working class.

As we shall also show, the policies of the SACP are policies of compromise with capitalism, which also compromise our struggle for majority rule.

All the ‘Communist’ Parties reject the legacy of Trotsky’s ideas. When they dare to mention him, they reproduce the same lies, distortions and slanders that were invented by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the 1920s. That is a litmus test of their leaders’ fear of working class revolution.

One of the rare occasions on which the SACP has tried to reply to Trotsky is an article by Dialego -“What is Trotskyism?” in the African Communist, 4th Quarter 1988. Purporting to summarise Trotsky’s life and main ideas, it concludes that “few would deny that throughout his life Trotsky hindered rather than helped the struggle for socialism”!

In this pamphlet we hope to show what a scandalous falsification not merely of Trotsky’s ideas, but of the whole legacy of Marxism, is involved in these claims.

The aim of this pamphlet is to assist in clarifying the ideas, methods, and perspectives which can lead to the victory of democracy and socialism in South Africa and internationally.

All those who wish to build a mass ANC, under the control of the working class, on a program for national liberation, workers’ power and socialism, should join with the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the ANC to carry forward the ideas and methods inherited from Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.

Continue to Chapter One