Trotsky’s revolutionary ideas – originality or continuity?

By Paul Le Blanc

December 2, 2018 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – Although I consider myself a Trotskyist (just as I consider myself a Leninist and a Marxist), there is something that has gotten me into trouble with some friends who also identify as Trotskyists.[1]

Early in my short biography Leon Trotsky, I said: “A key dimension of Trotsky’s reputation is as a brilliantly innovative theorist.” That was okay – it was what came next that was the problem: “In looking at the ideas Trotsky put forward in his theoretical writings ... I will be inclined to emphasize the aspects of unoriginality in Trotsky’s thought, especially in relation to the much-vaunted theory of permanent revolution, his analysis of Stalinism, his prescriptions for defeating Hitler, and the much misunderstood Transitional Program.  All these are drawn from Marx and from revolutionary Marxists of Trotsky’s own time, including the best of Second International Marxism in the period leading up to 1914, as well as the collective project of the early Third International.”[2] I want to focus, here, on the substance of what Trotsky had to say on such things as permanent revolution and Stalinism and so on.  But first I want to take a little time unpacking this originality thing.

I think it is very unhelpful to turn Leon Trotsky into some kind of ideological icon, with a special set of theories presented under the banner of “Trotskyism,” for the purpose of elevating him (and those of us who worship the icon) above the rest of humanity – or at least above everyone else on the Left.  It can also lead to the fashioning of ideological measuring rods, with which we can beat those among us who seem to deviate from the Master’s Doctrine.  I think it is especially unhelpful to have a competing set of labels: there go some Marxists, here comes a Leninist, and that one over there is a Trotskyist, then there’s a Luxemburgist, here’s a Gramscian, and so on.  Trotsky (and Marx and Lenin and Luxemburg and Gramsci) didn’t see things that way. Trotsky considered himself a revolutionary socialist, which was the same for him as a communist – although he did believe that the whole set of Marx’s ideas and way of approaching things was so impressive and valuable, that he was happy to call himself a Marxist.  This is also true of such people as Luxemburg, Lenin and Gramsci – and in my book From Marx to Gramsci, I seek to demonstrate that these three revolutionaries, along with Trotsky and Marx and Engels, are best understood as being close enough in methodological approach and practical political orientation to be grouped together.[3]

Trotsky had an advantage over the others, due to the banal fact that he was able to live longer, enabling him to apply Marxist analysis to the most horrific tyrannies of the twentieth century – Stalinism and fascism (particularly fascism’s most virulent form, Nazism).[4]  We’ll return to that shortly – but first, let’s consider how Trotsky was inclined to define the term Marxist – especially in relation to the term Leninist.  

One of the places Trotsky explored this was in the voluminous notes for his unfinished biography of Stalin.  He noted, “Marxism is in itself a historical product and should be accepted as such.  This historical Marxism includes within itself three basic elements: materialist dialectics, historical materialism, and a theoretical critique of capitalist economy.”  He went on to assert: “Leninism is Marxism in action, that is, theory made flesh and blood.”  It’s not that Marx was a theorist instead of an activist – he was active in the Communist League of the late 1840s and the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) of the 1860s and early 1870s.  But, according to Trotsky, “Lenin’s work differs enormously from the work of Marx and his old comrades just as much as Lenin’s epoch differs from that of Marx.  Marx, the revolutionist, lived and died as the theoretical teacher of young parties of the proletariat and as a precursor of its future decisive struggles.  Lenin led the proletariat to the conquest of power, secured victory by means of his leadership, led the first workers state in the history of humanity,” through the Russian Revolution, at the same time working for the global triumph of working-class rule, especially through the Communist International.[5]

Of course, just as Marx was lucky to have what Trotsky calls “old comrades” who made essential contributions to what he thought and was able to do, so it was with Lenin – his achievements were necessarily part of a collective endeavor. His comrades were especially concentrated in a centralized organizational network within the Russian revolutionary movement, a network known as the Bolsheviks.  Their revolutionary Marxist perspectives reflected the lessons and insights of accumulated experience, to which Lenin gave voice, and these, in turn, were a decisive influence within the early Communist International.[6]

Unfortunately, the forces in and around the Communist International were not successful in extending revolutionary working-class victories to other countries. The working-class regime of Soviet Russia was not only isolated in a hostile capitalist world, but it was severely damaged by a brutal civil war, and devastated by multiple tidal-waves of economic crises. 

Within the new Soviet Republic, this generated authoritarian habits and inclinations within the apparatus of the Communist Party and Soviet state.  A self-interested bureaucracy crystallized that claimed to represent the old revolutionary commitments but, in fact, was going in a very different direction.   As Trotsky explained in his 1937 testimony to the Dewey Commission, at this point (back in the early 1920s) the bureaucracy initiated a campaign in which “all the old formulae of Bolshevism were named ‘Trotskyist.’  That was the trick.  What was the genuine thing in Bolshevism is opposed to every privilege, to the oppression of the majority by the minority.”  Stalinists now denounced this as “the program of Trotskyism.”[7]

Trotsky’s distinctiveness is that, unlike many, he sought to remain true to the original revolutionary perspectives.  In a sense he became original simply through applying old principles – as consistently and creatively as he could – to new realities. This brings us back to Marxism.

Marxism fuses a view of history, an engagement with current realities, and a strategic orientation for replacing capitalism with socialism.  The dominant interpretation of history shared by Marxists of the early twentieth century went something like this: since the rise of class societies (with small, powerful upper classes of exploiters enriched by vast laboring majorities) there have been a succession of historical stages characterized by different forms of economy – ancient slave civilizations giving way to feudalism, which has given way to present-day capitalism. 

The growth of capitalism was facilitated by democratic revolutions that swept away rule by kings and the power of landed nobles, making way for increasingly democratic republics and capitalist economies.  The victory of the capitalists (the bourgeoisie) paves the way for the triumph of industrialization and modernization.  This creates economic productivity and abundance making possible a socialist future (a thoroughly democratic society of freedom and plenty, in which there will be no upper class and no lower class).  Capitalism also creates a working-class (or proletarian) majority that potentially has an interest in, and the power required for, bringing into being a socialist future.

Many Marxists consequently believed that there must first be a bourgeois-democratic revolution, followed by industrialization and modernization, before the necessary preconditions for a proletarian-socialist revolution can be created.  There seemed a crying need for such a bourgeois-democratic revolution in economically “backward” Russia of the early 1900s.  It was a land oppressed by the Tsarist autocracy and landed nobility (to which capitalists were subordinated as junior partners), with a small working class and a large impoverished peasantry.  Many Marxists concluded they should fight for the triumph of such a bourgeois-democratic revolution, so that capitalist development could eventually create the economic and political preconditions for a working-class revolution that would eventually bring about socialism.  

For some Russian Marxists (the Mensheviks, influenced by “the father of Russian Marxism,” George Plekhanov), this meant building a worker-capitalist alliance to overthrow Tsarism.  Lenin and his Bolsheviks – profoundly skeptical of the revolutionary potential of Russia’s capitalists – called instead for a radical worker-peasant alliance that would carry the anti-Tsarist struggle to victory.  But even they did not question the “orthodox” schema: first, a distinct bourgeois-democratic revolution paving the way for capitalist development; later – once conditions were ripe – a working-class revolution to bring about socialism.[8]

Yet from a Marxist point of view, this schema provides a theoretical and political puzzle.  If the working class is as essential to the democratic revolution as the Mensheviks claimed, and if their direct exploiters are the capitalists with whom they are engaged in class struggle, then how can these mortal enemies be expected to link arms as comrades in a common struggle? And if – as Lenin insisted – the workers must, in fact, turn their backs on the capitalists (in alliance with the peasantry) to overthrow Tsarism, what sense would it make for them in the moment of victory to turn power over to their cowardly exploiters?

“Trotsky alone [was able] to cut the gordian knot of the Marxism of the Second International,” my friend Michael Löwy has argued, “and to grasp the revolutionary possibilities that lay beyond the dogmatic construction of the democratic Russian revolution which was the unquestioned problematic of all other Marxist formulations.”  Yet scholars Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, in their massive documentary volume Witnesses to Permanent Revolution, have provided a sharp and persuasive challenge to this. “Leon Trotsky, while certainly the most famous and brilliant proponent of permanent revolution, was by no means its sole author,” is how they sum it up.  Among the others are Karl Kautsky, Alexander Helphand (who used the pen-name Parvus), Rosa Luxemburg, David Riazanov, Franz Mehring – and, one could add, Lenin, with his formulation “uninterrupted revolution.”  The phrase “permanent revolution,” and essential elements of the theory, can be found in works of Marx and Engels – especially in their writings of 1850.  With specific reference to Russia, the conceptualization crops up in their writings of the 1870s and 1880s – for example, in the 1882 introduction to the Communist Manifesto.[9]

Trotsky himself insisted that his “permanent revolution” conception overlapped with perspectives of other Marxists.  Some have characterized this as an effort to “minimize the originality of his conception” in order to “play down the supposedly ‘heretical’ nature of the theory of permanent revolution.”[10]  In fact, it seems Trotsky’s comments were grounded less in political expediency than intellectual honesty.  Far from being the unique innovation of Leon Trotsky, it is a perspective that flows naturally from the revolutionary conceptualizations inherent in the analyses and methodology of Marx himself.  “Trotsky is deeply committed to one element in classical Marxism,” as Isaac Deutscher has observed, “its quintessential element: permanent revolution.”[11]  Revolutionary-minded theorists and activists – seeking to apply such Marxism to the world around them – will naturally come up with formulations going in a “permanent revolution” direction.

Yet it was Trotsky’s sparkling prose that most clearly and boldly formulated the interrelated elements of permanent revolution.  Trotsky’s formulation linked the struggle for democracy – the end of feudal privileges (especially redistribution of land to the peasants), freedom of expression, equal rights for all, rule by the people – with the struggle for socialism, a society in which the great majority of people would control the economic resources of society, to allow for the full and free development of all.  It also linked the struggle for revolution in Russia with the cause of socialist revolution throughout the world. 

Trotsky’s version of the theory contained three basic points.  One: The revolutionary struggle for democracy in Russia could only be won under the leadership of the working class with support from the peasant majority.  Two: This democratic revolution would begin a transitional period in Russia in which all political, social, cultural and economic relations would continue to be in flux, leading in the direction of socialism.  Three: This transition would be part of, and would help to advance, and must also be furthered by an international revolutionary process.

One might go further, beyond countries like Russia: permanent revolution has application in the capitalist heartland, not simply in the less developed periphery.  Struggles for genuine democracy, struggles to end militarism and imperialist wars, struggles to defend the environment from the devastation generated by capitalism, struggles simply to preserve the quality of life for a majority of the people, cannot be secured without the working class coming to power and overturning capitalism.  This means our own struggles in the here-and-now also have a “permanent revolution” dynamic.  Nor can socialist victory be secured without the spread of such revolutions to other lands. Trotsky insisted on (in his words) “the permanent character of revolution as such, regardless of whether it is a backward country that is involved, which only yesterday accomplished its democratic revolution, or an old capitalist country which already has behind it a long epoch of democracy and parliamentarism.” He added:

The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. . . . The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.[12]

But, again, this is plain Marxism, not some innovative theoretical twist of Trotsky’s.  And he never claimed otherwise.

After Lenin’s death, the rising bureaucratic apparatus headed by Stalin in the Communist Party and Soviet state instinctively gravitated toward a variant of “Marxism” that snapped all threads connecting the essential elements of Trotsky’s formulation of permanent revolution: connections between democracy, socialism, and internationalism. Stalin advanced the notion that this so-called “socialism” (burdened by scarcity and authoritarianism, problems that would eventually fade away if all comrades did what they were told) could be created in the Soviet Union itself, within a capitalist-dominated world.[13]  Therefore Communist parties in other countries (required to follow the Stalinist line) were expected to struggle for democracy and social reforms, but not socialist revolution, making alliances with “progressive capitalists” and creating regimes to peacefully coexist with the Soviet Union.  This approach was interrupted briefly, from 1929 to 1934, by a so-called “left turn” (which we will examine shortly).

As Tom Twiss documents in his fine study Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy, Trotsky’s early efforts to analyze Stalinism contained some serious misjudgments.[14]  Still, early on he got much of it right.  Describing in 1932 the typical functionary of the Soviet bureaucracy, “who manipulates the general line [of the Party] like a fireman his hose,” Trotsky was merciless: “He eats and guzzles and procreates and grows himself a respectable potbelly.  He lays down the law with a sonorous voice, handpicks from below people faithful to him, remains faithful to his superiors, prohibits others from criticizing himself, and sees in all this the gist of the general line.”   A few million such bureaucrats constituted the governing apparatus, he added, and a majority of them “never participated in the class struggle, which is bound up with sacrifices, self-denials, and dangers. ... They are backed by the state power.  It assures them their livelihood and raises them considerably above the surrounding masses.”  

Using the analogy of the bureaucratization of the top layers in trade unions and working-class political parties, raising themselves above the working class they claim to represent, Trotsky argued that “the ruling and uncontrolled position of the Soviet bureaucracy is conducive to a psychology which in many ways is directly contradictory to the psychology of a proletarian revolutionist.  Its own aims and combinations in domestic as well as international politics are placed by the bureaucracy above the tasks of the revolutionary education of the masses and have no connection with the tasks of international revolution.”  His analysis is summed up with a single conceptually packed sentence:  “ On the foundation of the dictatorship of the proletariat – in a backward country, surrounded by capitalism – for the first time a powerful bureaucratic apparatus has been created from among the upper layers of the workers, that is raised above the masses, that lays down the law to them, that has at its disposal colossal resources, that is bound together by an inner mutual responsibility, and that intrudes into the policies of a workers’ government its own interests, methods, and regulations.”[15]

Far from portraying Stalinism as the product of an evil genius, Trotsky sees it as related to the more general development of a bureaucratic-conservative dynamic naturally deriving from historical circumstances, conditioned by specific economic realities.  This involves an analytical methodology quite recognizable to those familiar with the approach of Karl Marx.  

Nazism, and fascism in general, are similarly analyzed by Trotsky through the employment of basic Marxist categories (and dovetailing with other Marxist analyses – for example, those of Antonio Gramsci in Italy and of Rosa Luxemburg’s close comrade Clara Zetkin in Germany).[16] Before exploring Trotsky’s analysis of fascism, we should note another aspect of Stalinism – its ultra-left turn of 1929-1934. 

By the early 1930s, the urgency of stopping Hitler and the Nazi movement from taking power in Germany was absolutely clear to Trotsky.  But such urgency was something that the mainstream of the Communist movement proved incapable of grasping.  The reason can be found in the political disorientation generated by Stalinism.     

Stalin’s dictatorship resulted from the failure of socialist revolution to spread beyond the confines of what had been the huge and backward Russian Empire, contradicting Bolshevism’s original revolutionary-internationalist expectations.  The resulting authoritarian bureaucracy, which dominated not only Soviet Russia but the entire Communist International, adhered to a shallow pragmatism characteristic of such regimes.  When a global economic depression began to devastate the capitalist world in 1929, such shallow pragmatism allowed revolutionary hopes to balloon among the bureaucrats, but these were expressed in a mechanistic and bureaucratic form.  

A theory of three “periods” was advanced by the Stalinists: the first period (1917-22) had been one of revolutionary upheaval, revolutionary flow; the second period (1922-29) had been one of revolutionary ebb and capitalist re-stabilization; and the new third period, opening with the Great Depression, would usher in capitalist collapse and revolutionary triumph.  The future belonged to the world Communist movement headed by Comrade Stalin.  The greatest threat to revolutionary victory was posed not by fascists and Nazis – they were seen as foolish demagogues who would prove helpless in the face of history’s revolutionary tidal wave.  The real threat consisted of left-wing working-class currents that were not part of the Stalinist mainstream in the Communist movement.  Such elements (whether moderate socialists or revolutionary socialists) threatened to mislead the workers, drawing them away from the true revolutionary leadership of Comrade Stalin.  This meant they were, ultimately and objectively, twins of the fascists – instead of socialists, they should be considered “social-fascists.”[17]  

Street fighting between German Communists and Nazis became a daily routine in the early 1930s, but an alliance against the Nazis with the massive German Social-Democratic Party – the so-called “social-fascists” – was unthinkable. And if Hitler’s Nazis took power, in the view of Stalin’s followers, the masses would soon turn against them, leading to Communist triumph: “After Hitler – our turn!”  This outlook harmonized well with the fierce and brutalizing rapid industrialization and agricultural collectivization policies in the Soviet Union associated with Stalin’s murderous “revolution from above” of 1928-34.[18]  

For Trotsky, the rise of Nazism could be explained by several convergent developments.  Nazism’s growing mass base came largely from what he viewed as “petty bourgeois” layers – farmers, shopkeepers, civil servants, white-collar employees, all of whom definitely did not want to be “proletarianized” and were becoming increasingly desperate for an alternative to the grim status quo and the deepening economic crisis.  They, and some “backward” layers of the working class, were for various reasons alienated from the “Marxism” associated with both the massive German Communist Party and the even more massive Social-Democratic Party, both of which were rooted in majority sectors of the country’s working class.  Petty bourgeois and alienated working-class elements flocked to a plebeian movement steeped in the ideological witch’s brew of super-patriotic nationalism and racism prevalent in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Germany. Fierce anti-Semitism was blended with vague anti-capitalist rhetoric.  Yet the Nazis drew much material support from substantial elements within the upper classes (aristocrats, financiers, industrialists) who detested Social Democrats and trade unions and who genuinely feared the possibility, particularly with the Great Depression, of the sort of Communist revolution that had triumphed in Russia a dozen years before.  The mass political movement the Nazis were building provided a counter-weight and ultimately a battering ram to smash the Marxist threat.   

An essential ingredient in the growth of Nazi mass appeal was the earlier and ongoing failure of the major parties of the working-class left to provide a revolutionary solution to the problems afflicting society – the Social-Democrats thanks to the reformist and opportunistic moderation of their own bureaucratic leaders; the Communists thanks initially to their woeful inexperience, later compounded by the sectarian blinders of “third period” Stalinism. Especially when left-wing organizations and parties prove ineffective, Trotsky argued, petty bourgeois layers will be vulnerable to fascist appeals, drawing the more conservative layers of the working class along with them – which is exactly what was happening in regard to the Nazi movement, as masses of Germans were attracted by Hitler’s sweeping authoritarian certainties.

Trotsky called for a united front of Social-Democrats and Communists (including, as well, the dissident fractions of each), drawing on a conceptualization which the early Communist International had been won to – by Lenin, Trotsky himself, and others:  the notion that a working class divided between reformists and revolutionaries could still defend and advance its interests through a fighting unity. A united front must be formed, and within this context the revolutionaries, as the most effective fighters, could ultimately win the adherence of a working-class majority. This dynamic played out in Russia in 1917, when the reactionary General Kornilov was defeated by united working-class action, in turn giving the Bolsheviks predominant influence in the working class.  “Should the Communist Party be compelled to apply the policy of the united front, this will almost certainly make it possible to beat off the fascist attack,” Trotsky argued.  “In its own turn, a serious victory over fascism will clear the road for the dictatorship of the proletariat” – that is, for the working class to take political power and initiate a transition to socialism.[19]

In addition to breaking the Nazi threat and bringing a socialist transition in Germany, such a revolutionary development would likely generate similar revolutionary upsurges and transitions elsewhere, and by ending the Soviet Union’s isolation, thereby also helping to overcome the influence of Stalinism there and in the world Communist movement.  In addition to pushing aside the twin tyrannies of Hitlerism and Stalinism, the question is naturally raised whether such developments might have prevented World War II.  

Of course, history took a more tragic turn.  Once Hitler came to power, the Communist International ultimately zig-zagged in the opposite direction, and by 1935 was calling for what some perceived as a sort of Super United Front – called the People’s Front or Popular Front. Communists were now supposed to unite not only with moderate socialists, but also (and especially) with liberal capitalist politicians, for the purpose of creating liberal capitalist governments that would form an alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler’s Germany.  Comintern spokesman George Dimitrov explained: “The toiling masses in a number of capitalist countries are faced with the necessity of making a definite choice, and of making it today, not between proletarian dictatorship and bourgeois democracy, but between bourgeois democracy and fascism.”  As historian E. H. Carr has noted, “Lenin’s ‘united front’ had been designed to hasten the advent of the proletarian revolution,” while “Dimitrov’s ‘popular front’ was designed to keep the proletarian revolution in abeyance in order to deal with the pressing emergency of Fascism,” adding: “care was taken not to ruffle the susceptibilities of those imperialist Powers whose support the Comintern was seeking to woo for the anti-Fascist front.”[20]  

Time after time, over the eight decades since then, revolutionary socialists have found old-time Stalinists and moderate socialists alike aggressively pushing forward that same political line.  In arguing against that, Trotsky didn’t devise some new theory, but simply continued to apply the united front perspective guiding the Communist International under Lenin.

The insights and perspectives that Trotsky developed in his time still have resonance and value for our own time. Yet there is – in the conclusion of these remarks – a question of method that deserves attention.  It is related to Trotsky’s caution against devising a set of presumably “orthodox Trotskyist” or “orthodox revolutionary” tactics to be applied “from Paris to Honolulu,” as he put it.  In discussions with Trotsky and others in Mexico in 1938, a seasoned U.S. comrade (Charlie Curtiss) expressed a concern that Trotskyists from various countries, in his words, “have an extremely mechanical approach to the problems of permanent revolution.”  He urged that “emphasis should be placed upon the study of each concrete case, not upon abstractions only but upon each concrete case.”  Trotsky agreed, chiming in that “schematicism of the formula of permanent revolution can become and does become extremely dangerous to our movement in Latin America.”  In seeking to provide leadership in workers’ struggles, he emphasized, it made no sense to “pose an abstract socialist dictatorship to the real needs and desires of the masses.” Instead, revolutionaries must start from actual “daily struggles to oppose the national bourgeoisie on the basis of the workers’ needs,” through this approach “winning the leadership of the workers” via democratic mass struggles helping workers gain power.[21]

Related to this was Trotsky’s criticism of comrades who “substitute a [seemingly revolutionary] monologue for actual political work among the masses.”  He expressed the same concern in various ways, at another time warning against an inclination, as he put it, to “terrorize the workers by some abstract generalities and paralyze the will toward activity.”  It is important to listen to and learn from others, in order to be able to communicate revolutionary perspectives in a way that makes sense to people – or as Trotsky put it, revolutionary activists “should have in the first place a good ear, and only in the second place a good tongue.”[22] 

This connects with what Trotsky is reaching for in the Transitional Program of 1938. “It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution,” he wrote. “This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”[23] Involving increasing numbers of people in actual mass struggles, in the here-and-now, for goals that seem quite reasonable to them but which come into sharp collision with the capitalist status quo – this is what helps to generate revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary struggle.

“How to mobilize the greatest possible numbers; how to raise the level of consciousness through action; how to create the most effective alliance of forces for the inescapable confrontation with the ruling classes” – this was the problematic with which Trotsky wrestled in this foundational document of the Fourth International, the global network of Trotskyist organizations. More than six decades after the founding, Fourth Internationalist Daniel Bensaïd shared his own understanding: “The concept of transitional demands overcomes sterile antinomies [contradictions or contrapositions] between a reformist gradualism which believes in changing society without revolutionizing it, and a fetishism of the ‘glorious day’ which reduces revolution to its climactic moment, to the detriment of the patient work of organization and education.”[24]

Here again, such insights are hardly unique to Trotsky. They are certainly essential to his politics, but they have also been an integral element in the methodology of revolutionary Marxism over the past 160 years, and part of the collective wisdom of the international workers’ movement for even longer.  They can certainly be found in Lenin and in the first four congresses of the Communist International.  And they can be found in Rosa Luxemburg’s earlier admonition at the dawn of the twentieth century, that the uncompromising struggle for social reforms is the pathway for the working class in achieving the consciousness, the confidence, the organization and the experience for realizing the aim of the socialist revolution.[25]

The fact remains that, along with the other aspects of the revolutionary ideas of Leon Trotsky touched on in these remarks, such challenging conceptualizations can be useful for us as we seek, today and tomorrow, to build effective struggles for freedom and socialism.  


[1]This article is based on a talk given on July 5, 2018 at a conference in Chicago called Socialism 2018, which can be listened to at

[2]Paul Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky(London: Reaktion Books, 2015), pp. 13-14. Two expressions of the criticism can be found in generally friendly reviews by Jeff Mackler, “Leon Trotsky, Revolutionary Fighter,” Socialist Action, October 15, 2015,, and by Michael Löwy, “A most intelligent and insightful presentation of Trotsky’s thought and historical action,” International Viewpoint, 3 May 2015,

[3]Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci, A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), the elaboration of the common ground and continuity being made in the book’s long introductory essay, pp. 3-145.

[4]A representative collection of Trotsky’s writings in this later period is offered in Kunal Chattopadhay and Paul LeBlanc, eds., Leon Trotsky, Writings in Exile(London: Pluto Press, 2012).  One could argue that Gramsci – who lived until April 27, 1937 – was also in a position to analyze both fascism and Stalinism.  But his ten-year imprisonment blocked Gramsci’s ability to grapple with the German variant of fascism, as well as with the nature and meaning of Stalinism. Despite important insights, his analyses of the latter were sometimes “evasive” and necessarily “limited,” as noted in Emanuele Saccarelli, Gramsci and Trotsky in the Shadow of Stalinism: The Political Theory and Practice of Opposition(New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 54.  

[5]Leon Trotsky, Stalin, An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence, ed. by Alan Woods and Robert Sewell (London: Wellred Books, 2016), pp. 723, 724, 733.

[6]This is demonstrated – massively and well – in the seven-volume work of John Riddell and his collaborators on the early years of the Communist International, five published by Pathfinder Press and two published by Haymarket Books. Also see additional writings on the Communist International by John Riddell, available at his internet site “Marxist Essays and Commentary” –  

[7]The Case of Leon Trotsky, Report of Hearings on the Charges Made Against Him in the Moscow Trials(New York: Merit Publishers, 1968), p. 319.

[8]For Trotsky’s account, see “Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution” in Stalin, pp. 763-780.

[9]Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), p. 43. Documentation on common ground between Trotsky and others can be found in Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, eds., Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record(Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2009), and in Teodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and “The Peripheries of Capitalism”(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).  On Lenin, see Löwy, pp. 34-36, and Paul Le Blanc, “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party: A Revolutionary Collective,” Links, Journal for Socialist Renewal, July 10, 2018,

[10]Löwy, p. 40. Löwy’s interpretation is powerfully and capably re-emphasized in the first part of an article (co-authored by Paul Le Blanc, who was responsible for the second part of that article) entitled, “Lenin and Trotsky” in Norman Levine and Thomas Rockmore, eds., The Palgrave Handbook of Leninist Philosophy(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).

[11]Isaac Deutscher, Introduction,” The Age of Permanent Revolution, A Trotsky Reader (New York: Dell, 1964), p. 18.

[12]Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), p. 279.

[13]For more on the nature of Stalinist theory, practice and sources, see Paul Le Blanc, Reflections on the Meaning of Stalinism,” Crisis and Critique, Vol. 3, Issue 1, 29 March 2016,

[14]Thomas M. Twiss, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015).

[15]Leon Trotsky, “What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat” (January 27, 1932), in Leon Trotsky, The Struggle against German Fascism, ed. by George Breitman and Merry Maisel (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), p. 213.  The most complete and rounded analysis can be found in Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed(New York: Doubleday Doran, 1937, which is consistent with the excerpt quoted here.

[16]See analyses of fascism in Antonio Gramsci, An Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, ed. by David Forgacs (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), pp. 135-185, and in Clara Zetkin, Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, ed. by Mike Taber and John Riddell (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).

[17]It has been shown that Nikolai Bukharin, briefly Stalin’s ally, played a key role in this “third period” theorization, but Stalin and those closest to him utilized it in far more extreme and destructive ways – see Nicholas N. Kozlov and Eric D. Weitz,“Reflections on the Origins of the 'Third Period': Bukharin, the Comintern, and the Political Economy of Weimar Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 24, No. 3, July 1989); also Georg Jungclas, “The Tragedy of the German Proletariat,” in Ernest Mandel, ed., Fifty Years of World Revolution, 1917-1967, An International Symposium(New York: Merit Publishers, 1967); and Theodore Draper, “The Ghost of Social Fascism,” Commentary, February 1967,

[18]E.H. Carr, Foundations of a Planned Economy, 1926-1929, Volume Three-II (London: Macmillan Press, 1976), pp. 638-643; C.L.R. James, World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, ed. by Christian Høgsbjerg (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), pp. 306-348; Allan Merson, Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany(London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1985), pp. 19-22, 71-72.

[19]Trotsky, “What Next?” in The Struggle against German Fascism, p. 254.

[20]Georgi Dimitroff, The United Front: The Struggle Against Fascism and War(New York: International Publishers, 1938), p. 110; E.H. Carr, The Twilight of the Comintern, 1930-1935(New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), pp. 419, 426.

[21]“Latin American Problems: A Transcript, November 4, 1938,” in Writings of Leon Trotsky, Supplement 1934-40, ed. by George Breitman (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1979), pp. 782, 783, 784.

[22]“The Social Composition of the Party,” in Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1936-37, ed. by George Breitman (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), 489, 490.  See also Dianne Feeley, Paul Le Blanc, Thomas Twiss. Leon Trotsky and the Organizational Principles of the Revolutionary Party(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).

[23]Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution(New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), p. 75.

[24]Daniel Bensaïd, Strategies of Resistance and “Who Are the Trotskyists?”(London: Resistance Books, 2009), p. 23.

[25]Rosa Luxemburg, “Reform or Revolution,” in Paul Le Blanc and Helen C. Scott, eds., Socialism or Barbarism: the Selected Writings of Rosa Luxemburg(London: Pluto Press, 2010), p. 48.