Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 10, 2019

The presentation Paul LeBlanc gave at the Trotsky conference in Havana

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 10:26 pm

THE DARKER THE NIGHT, THE BRIGHTER THE STAR: TROTSKY AND THE STRUGGLE AGAINST STALINISM

“The darker the night, the brighter the star,” the title of the final volume of Tony Cliff’s biography of Leon Trotsky, was taken from another book – The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars by Friedrich Schlotterbeck, a young working-class Communist in Germany when Adolf Hitler took power in 1933. His 1947 memoir on resistance to Nazi tyranny recounts the heroism and horrific destruction of comrades, friends, and family members who remained committed to socialist and communist ideals.

But Trotsky has told us: “No one, not excluding Hitler, has dealt socialism such deadly blows as Stalin. This is hardly astonishing since Hitler has attacked the working class organizations from without, while Stalin does it from within. Hitler assaults Marxism. Stalin not only assaults but prostitutes it. Not a single principle has remained unpolluted, not a single idea unsullied. The very names of socialism and communism have been cruelly compromised … Socialism signifies a pure and limpid social system which is accommodated to the self-government of the toilers. Stalin’s regime is based on a conspiracy of the rulers against the ruled. Socialism implies an uninterrupted growth of universal equality. Stalin has erected a system of revolting privileges. Socialism has as its goal the all-sided flowering of individual personality. When and where has man’s personality been so degraded as in the U.S.S.R.? Socialism would have no value apart from the unselfish, honest and humane relations between human beings. The Stalin regime has permeated social and personal relationships with lies, careerism and treachery.” So wrote Trotsky in 1937. And those animated by such beliefs in Soviet Russia were repressed no less ruthlessly than the German Communists had been.

The Left Oppositionists that Trotsky led persisted in their struggle after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, and they were rounded up and sent to Siberian prison camps. “When you can no longer serve the cause to which you have dedicated your life – you should give it your death.” These were the words of Adolf Joffe, one of Trotsky’s close comrades who had committed suicide as a protest against Stalinism in 1927. His young wife Maria was arrested in 1929. As the situation of the condemned Oppositionists worsened by degrees, she held out, and when it became the horrific “one long night” that she describes in her memoir, she was one of the few who somehow survived to tell what happened. She was sustained by the core belief: “It is possible to sacrifice your life, but the honor of a person, of a revolutionary – never.”

Pressures to give in were intense, when capitulation could mean freedom, while remaining in Opposition meant never-ending jail and exile. By 1934, Trotsky’s close comrade Christian Rakovsky himself was ready to capitulate, his views later recounted by Maria’s step-daughter, Nadezhda Joffe, in whom he confided and whom he won over: “His basic thoughts were that we had to return to the party in any way possible. He felt that there was undoubtedly a layer in the party which shared our views at heart, but had not decided to voice their agreement. And we could become a kind of common sense core and be able to accomplish something. Left in isolation, he said, they would strangle us like chickens.”

Some imprisoned male Oppositionists who rejected this logic made three toasts on New Year’s Day: “The first toast was to our courageous and long-suffering wives and women comrades, who were sharing our fate. We drank our second toast to the world proletarian revolution. Our third was to our people’s freedom and our own liberation from prison.”
Instead, they would soon be transferred to the deadly Siberian labor camps into which hundreds of thousands of victims of the 1935-39 purges were sent as Stalinist repression tightened throughout the country. Arrested while in Moscow in 1936, Secretary of the Palestinian Communist Party Joseph Berger later remembered the Left Oppositionists he met during his own ordeal: “While the great majority had ‘capitulated,’ there remained a hard core of uncompromising Trotskyists, most of them in prisons and camps. They and their families had all been rounded up in the preceding months and concentrated in three large camps — Kolyma, Vorkuta, and Norilsk…. The majority were experienced revolutionaries who had … joined the Opposition in the early twenties…. Purists, they feared contamination of their doctrine above all else in the world…. When I accused the Trotskyists of sectarianism, they said what mattered was ‘to keep the banner unsullied.’”

Another survivor’s account recalls “the Orthodox Trotskyists” of the Vorkuta labor camp who “were determined to remain faithful to their platform and their leaders. … Even though they were in prison, they continued to consider themselves Communists; as for Stalin and his supporters, ‘the apparatus men,’ they were characterized as renegades from communism.” Along with their supporters and sympathizers, they numbered in the thousands in this area. As word spread of Stalin’s show trials designed to frame and execute the Old Bolshevik leaders, and as conditions at the camp deteriorated, “the entire group of ‘Orthodox’ Trotskyists” came together. The eyewitness remembers the speech of Socrates Gevorkian: “It is now evident that the group of Stalinist adventurers have completed their counter-revolutionary coup d’etat in our country. All the progressive conquests of our revolution are in mortal danger. Not twilight shadows but those of the deep black night envelop our country. . . . No compromise is possible with the Stalinist traitors and hangmen of the revolution. But before destroying us, Stalin will try to humiliate us as much as he can. . . . We are left with only one means of struggle in this unequal battle: the hunger strike. . . .’ The great majority of prisoners, regardless of political orientation, followed this lead.”

Lasting from October 1936 to March 1937, the 132-day hunger strike was powerfully effective and forced the camp officials to give in to the strikers’ demands. But then, Maria Joffe was told by an Oppositionist who had survived, “everything suddenly came to an end.” In 1938 the Trotskyists of Vorkuta were marched out in batches – men, women, children over the age of twelve – into the surrounding arctic wasteland. “Their names were checked against a list and then, group by group, they were called out and machine-gunned,” writes Joseph Berger. “Some struggled, shouted slogans and fought the guards to the last.” According to a witness, as one group of about a hundred was led out of the camp to be shot, “the condemned sang the ‘Internationale’ joined by the voices of hundreds of prisoners remaining in camp.”

This expanded into what Maria Joffe calls “the complete destruction of the October and Civil War generation, ‘infected by Trotskyist heresy …’” The so-called “Trotskyist heresy” analyzed how a profoundly democratic workers and peasants revolution, inspired by the deepest socialist idealism, could turn into one of the worst tyrannies in human history. Trotsky’s analysis clearly emerges from the fundamental analysis of Karl Marx eighty years earlier. It is also inseparable from the basics of Trotsky’s own theory of permanent revolution.

[In the presentation I was going to give, I intended to discuss Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR, his theory of permanent revolution, and the program of the Left Opposition. But this has already been discussed in the presentation by Eric Toussaint and can be found in the longer version of this talk that I’ve already handed out to you. In the interest of saving time, given the extra time it is taking to translate, I will cut that out of these remarks. I want to conclude with a comment about the meaning of it all – the so-called “heresy” and the program for which these wonderful comrades struggled and gave their lives.]

The relevance of this for today brings us back to this talk’s title. When we look up at night, the blackness of the universe is vividly punctuated by the stars, whose glow has traveled light-years for us to see. Even though some of those stars no longer exist, we see them shining from where we are. And their wondrous illumination may help us find our way in the dark terrain of our own times.

1 Comment »

  1. The text of a similar presentation, with footnotes, can be found at Links: international journal of socialist renewal at
    http://links.org.au/node/4759

    Comment by alan ginsberg — May 10, 2019 @ 10:49 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: