If you are interested in the history of the International Left in the first half of the 20th century or are a militant trying to understand some of the past lessons of our history concerning the communist response to various social and labor questions this book is for you. I have reviewed elsewhere Trotsky’s writings published under the title The Left Opposition, 1923-1929 (in three volumes) dealing with Trotsky’s internal political struggles for power inside the Russian Communist Party (and by extension, the political struggles inside the Communist International) in order to save the Russian Revolution. This book is part of a continuing series of volumes in English of his writings from his various points of external exile from 1929 up until his death in 1940. These volumes were published by the organization that James P. Cannon, early American Communist Party and later Trotskyist leader founded, the Socialist Workers Party, during the 1970’s and 1980’s. (Cannon’s writings in support of Trotsky’s work are reviewed elsewhere in this space). Look in the archives in this space for other related reviews on and by this important world communist leader.
To set the framework for these reviews I will give a little personal, political and organizational sketch of the period under discussion. After that I will highlight some of the writings from each volume that are of continuing interest. Reviewing such compilations is a little hard to get a handle on as compared to single subject volumes of Trotsky’s writing but, hopefully, they will give the reader a sense of the range of this important revolutionary’s writings.
After the political defeat of the various Trotsky-led Left Oppositions 1923 to 1929 by Stalin and his state and party bureaucracy he nevertheless found it far too dangerous to keep Trotsky in Moscow. He therefore had Trotsky placed in internal exile at Ata Alma in the Soviet Far East in 1928. Even that turned out to be too much for Stalin’s tastes and in 1929 he arranged for the external exile of Trotsky to Turkey. Although Stalin probably rued the day that he did it this exile was the first of a number of places which Trotsky found himself in external exile. Other places included, France, Norway and, finally, Mexico where he was assassinated by a Stalinist agent in 1940. As these volumes, and many others from this period attest to, Trotsky continued to write on behalf of a revolutionary perspective. Damn, did he write. Some, including a few of his biographers, have argued that he should have given up the struggle, retired to who knows where, and acted the role of proper bourgeois writer or professor. Please! These volumes scream out against such a fate, despite the long odds against him and his efforts on behalf of international socialist revolution. Remember this is a revolutionary who had been through more exiles and prisons than one can count easily, held various positions of power and authority in the Soviet state and given the vicissitudes of his life could reasonably expect to return to power with a new revolutionary upsurge. Personally, I think Trotsky liked and was driven harder by the long odds.
The political prospects for socialist revolution in the period under discussion are, to say the least, rather bleak, or ultimately turned out that way. The post-World War I revolutionary upsurge has dissipated leaving Soviet Russia isolated. Various other promising revolutionary situations, most notably the aborted German revolution of 1923 that would have gone a long way to saving the Russian Revolution, had come to naught. In the period under discussion there is a real sense of defensiveness about the prospects for revolutionary change. The specter of fascism loomed heavily and we know at what cost to the international working class. The capitulation to fascism by the German Communist and Social Democratic Parties in 1933, the defeat of the heroic Austrian working class in 1934, the defeat in Spain in 1939, and the outlines of the impending Second World War colored all political prospects, not the least Trotsky’s.
Organizationally, Trotsky developed two tactical orientations. The first was a continuation of the policy of the Left Opposition during the 1920’s. The International Left Opposition as it cohered in 1930 still acted as an external and unjustly expelled faction of the official Communist parties and of the Communist International and oriented itself to winning militants from those organizations. After the debacle in Germany in 1933 a call for new national parties and a new, fourth, international became the organizational focus. Many of the volumes here contain letters, circulars, and manifestos around these orientations. The daunting struggle to create an international cadre and to gain some sort of mass base animate many of the writings collected in this series. Many of these pieces show Trotsky’s unbending determination to make a breakthrough. That these effort were, ultimately, militarily defeated during the course of World War Two does not take away from the grandeur of the efforts. Hats off to Leon Trotsky.