The new and completed edition of Stalin, the critical biography Trotsky was working on at the time of his death, was officially launched at the Museo Casa de León Trotsky (Leon Trotsky House Museum) in Mexico City by the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) with presentations by Esteban Volkov, Trotsky’s grandson, and Alan Woods, the editor of the new edition of the book.
The International launching of the book, painstakingly worked on and completed over almost three years by Alan Woods, the editor of In Defence of Marxism, took place on August 20, 2016, at the very location where Trotsky was assassinated and on the 76th anniversary of the attack that led to his death on August 21, 1940.
The meeting was held in the auditorium of the museum before a packed house with some 120 to 130 people in attendance. By the time the meeting started there was standing room only as people were eager to hear the speakers.
The meeting was presented and chaired by Ubaldo Meneses, a comrade with the IMT in Mexico. Ubaldo explained that Trotsky was working on the book when he was assassinated, and that his biography of Stalin was not only of historic interest and remained relevant to this day.
The book presents a powerful historical analysis that offers many ideas and opens possibilities for the Trotskyist movement, as well as for the youth and workers struggling against capitalist exploitation and oppression today.
Ubaldo explained that Trotsky was one of the giants of the 20th Century, a man whose ideas animated and fuelled the greatest event in human history – the Russian Revolution of October 1917.
Trotsky’s ideas, particularly the theory of permanent revolution, along with his great work on The History of the Russian Revolution and his analysis of the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution in Russia rank among his most important contributions to Marxist theory. The new edition of Stalin can also be added to this list of his most important works.
But as Ubaldo explained, Trotsky was not only a great theoretician, writer and orator. He was a revolutionary through and through and lived his life and engaged in political work and his personal interests with great intensity, who along with Lenin was one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution.
Although he was one of the principal leaders of the October Revolution, had played a key role in the formation of the Red Army and was the commander of Red forces in the Civil War, Trotsky considered the defence of Marxist ideas in the face of the Stalinist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union to be the greatest and most important task of his life.
Restoring the biography
Ubaldo then introduced Esteban Volkov, Trotsky’s grandson and the director of the Trotsky House Museum, who has dedicated most of his life to defending the ideas of Trotsky, and fighting for the truth about his life and struggle against Stalin.
Esteban began by thanking Alan Woods and the IMT for their admirable work in completing and restoring the book, which is now as close as possible to Trotsky’s original intentions for the biography.
Esteban has long fought for the restoration of the Stalin biography and discussed the history of the work and the role played by Charles Malamuth in the original publication following Trotsky’s death.
He explained that contrary to what many believe, Trotsky did not undertake the biography to spite Stalin or out of a sense of resentment or hatred against him and his cronies in the Kremlin.
In fact, as Esteban explained, Trotsky had no real interest in writing a biography of Stalin. His real interest at that time was completing a book on the life of Lenin, which he had already started.
The time Trotsky and his family spent in exile was one of extreme hardship and danger, and Esteban explained that one of the primary motivations in writing the biography was the extremely difficult economic situation they found themselves in.
When an American publishing house, Harper & Brothers, offered a considerable sum of money for a biography of Stalin, Trotsky, though reluctant, undertook the task in earnest.
After Trotsky’s assassination by a Stalinist agent, and motivated by purely commercial interests, Harper & Brothers tasked the translator of the work, Charles Malamuth, whose work Trotsky was not entirely pleased with, with the editing and completion of the biography for publication.
Malamuth effectively butchered and destroyed the book by shortening it considerably and adding many of his own annotations that went directly against the ideas expressed by Trotsky in the work. Despite the many problems and inaccuracies in the edition completed by Malamuth and the objections of Trotsky’s family, the publishers went ahead and released the book anyway.
At this point Esteban compared a copy of the original publication with a copy of the new edition, explaining that by removing Malamuth’s poor annotations and by translating and including the material he had removed or not included, the work was now some 30 to 40 percent larger than the original. Holding the books side by side he pointed out that the original edition was some 500 pages long, with the new edition containing nearly 900 pages.
Esteban went on to explain that Trotsky’s biography of Stalin was not only of interest because of Stalin’s exceptional criminality, and that the book was not simply an historical recounting of these crimes. In fact, the work is multi-dimensional, and presents a meticulous analysis of historical processes and individual personalities, making it a profoundly political work.
Esteban finished by explaining that the IMT had set itself the task a number of years ago of saving and rescuing the work, a task that had been successfully achieved. He personally thanked Alan and the IMT for the meticulous and hard work that was put into restoring the book, adding that Alan Woods and the IMT were able to achieve this task as genuine representatives of the ideas of Trotsky.
Marxism, the history of the Soviet Union and the role of the individual in history
Alan Woods was then invited to speak and discuss the publication of the latest and most complete edition yet of Stalin. Alan began by explaining the historic nature of the book launch meeting at the Trotsky House Museum.
Trotsky’s biography of Stalin, along with Trotsky’s other key works, is a work on the highest order in the theoretical arsenal of Marxism. Yet, the book did not necessarily have to exist. Stalin was utterly intent on destroying the book, and did not want it to see the light of day. Why? Because Trotsky was a witness who knew Stalin and the true history of the man and the Russian Revolution. Stalin feared this above all.
Stalin was in fact obsessed by Trotsky. Stalin always had the latest works of Trotsky on his desk every morning, often before they were published. But he didn’t follow the writings and work of Trotsky and the Left Opposition, and later the Fourth International, out of political interest. Stalin was one of the greatest criminals in human history, and like all criminals he was intent on eliminating and destroying all witnesses – witnesses to his true past and to his crimes.
Stalin was in reality a very superficial and mediocre person. He was profoundly jealous of Trotsky, and the role he played in the Russian Revolution and Civil War. In the face of accusations that he had allowed his hatred of Stalin to influence his judgment and ideas, Trotsky explained that he had no personal relations with Stalin. He had explained that they had parted ways so long ago that any personal relations between them had been entirely extinguished, and that his personal feelings towards Stalin were in reality no different than his feelings towards Hitler or Mikado, for example.
Alan went on to explain the rise and development of the cult of personality around Stalin after the death of Lenin. During Stalin’s rise to power, the idea was developed by the cronies in the Kremlin that one person could determine the fate of an entire country, without any collaborators or assistance, a monstrous distortion of the historical process. An analysis of this cult of personality is what helps to make Trotsky’s biography of Stalin unique in Marxist theory.
When the USSR collapsed, the bourgeoisie around the world was euphoric. They pronounced the death of socialism and the “end of history”. There was a veritable avalanche of attacks and relentless propaganda against socialism, communism, Marxism and the Russian Revolution, etc. Demoralized and cynical, many former communists and Stalinists joined in on these attacks.
Alan explained that if the ruling class and the bourgeois media attack Marxism, and continue attacking Marxism, it certainly isn’t because it’s dead – in fact the opposite is the case.
As Alan pointed out, the coming year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution, which was in fact the most important event in human history. It was the first time that the masses – millions of ordinary workers and peasants overthrew a rotten regime that had existed for hundreds of years and set themselves the task of building a socialist society.
Russia in 1917 was exceptionally backwards – more backwards than countries like Pakistan or Mexico today. The country was largely illiterate, and out of a total population of around 150 million, only some 3.5 million were industrial workers.
Enemies of the revolution claim that the October Revolution really amounted to “nothing”, or that it was simply a coup d’état led by a small minority. The truth of the matter, however, is that the Russian Revolution was the most democratic, mass revolution in history.
Yet, the Revolution unfortunately ended in an aberration, a bureaucratic caricature of the spirit and ideals that animated October. As Alan explained, the brutal methods and crimes of the Stalinist bureaucracy had nothing in common with the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. The roots of the degeneration of the Revolution and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy were explained by Trotsky in one of his most important books, The Revolution Betrayed, a book Alan encouraged all present to read and study.
Alan continued by explaining that one of the most common and greatest attacks on Marxism appears on college and university campuses. This is the argument that says that Marxism essentially reduces everything to economics. This simply is not true, and any serious study of the ideas of Marxism will demonstrate this. In the final analysis, economics are a decisive factor, but they are not the only factor to the exclusion of all others.
History is not simply determined by economics. History is the history of men and women, of people and individuals. In certain periods of history, individuals can play a decisive role, for example Lenin and Trotsky in the October Revolution.
Marx explained that men and women make their own history, but that they do not make it as they please, as free agents independent of the economic and social context they find themselves in.
Alan explained that Lenin and Trotsky played a key role in the Russian Revolution. Without their presence, the October Revolution would not have happened, or at least it certainly would not have unfolded as it did. Yet after the death of Lenin, Trotsky was powerless to change the situation individually in the context of the Stalinist counterrevolution.
A superficial and simple response to the question of why Stalin was victorious and Trotsky lost in the struggle following Lenin’s death is that Stalin was more prepared, or that he had a better grasp of tactics.
But this is not true, and is really too simplistic an explanation for what was an extraordinarily complex process. Stalin was ignorant and mediocre. Trotsky was a giant. Yet, Trotsky lost the struggle to the lesser man. Alan explained once again that men and women are not free agents, adding that many others have sought the reasons for Trotsky´s defeat in psychology, arguments which do not hold up under serious scrutiny.
Alan then explained the connection between Trotsky’s biography of Stalin and an important work written by Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Louis Bonaparte was an utterly mediocre man, yet managed to win power in France. Through the development of the Marxist theory of the role of the individual in history, we understand that there are historical periods, heroic periods in which the giants of history dominate, and other periods of demoralization in which mediocrity dominates.
As Alan explained, there are historical similarities between the Thermidorian Reaction in France and the Stalinist counterrevolution in the USSR, which Trotsky often referred to as the Thermidorian Reaction in the Soviet Union.
Trotsky explained that a revolution is like a great strike, only on a broader scale and on a national level. Strikes and revolutions develop according to the same laws. As Alan explained, during the period of revolutionary ascent in the French Revolution, an heroic period, we see the rise of figures such as Robespierre, Danton and Saint-Just, who were historical giants.
However, when the revolutionary desires of the masses are not met, a contrary process opens. The participation of the masses declines. This is when space is cleared for mediocrity and the rise of lesser men and women. It was during this period of the French Revolution that we see the rise of the figure of Napoleon Bonaparte, who destroyed many of the conquests of the Revolution, restored the Catholic Church and declared himself emperor. There is a similarity between these events in the French Revolution and the rise of Stalin in the Russian Revolution.
Alan continued by discussing the final years of Lenin’s life, when he battled against the unhealthy and corrupt elements in the Soviet Union and the Communist Party. Given the crushing backwardness of Russia at the time, and after years of war, revolution, and civil war that had left the country utterly in ruin, the Soviet Union had developed around a weak edifice of workers’ democracy.
As Marx had explained, the development of the productive forces is a necessary premise of communism, because when want and misery are generalized, the struggle for necessities begins anew, and that means that all the old crap must revive.
The degeneration of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy were rooted in this backwardness – in this revival of all the “old crap”. When during the Civil War and afterwards with the delay in the international revolution and with the economy in ruin and millions of people dying of starvation, you cannot speak of socialism.
This process of the degeneration of the revolution was reflected in the theory of socialism in one country, which in reality is an anti-Marxist idea. Lenin and Trotsky never saw the Russian Revolution as an isolated national event, but rather as one of the first steps in the world revolution.
Alan explained that this was the context in which the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin took place, the struggle between the ideas of Marxism and for workers’ democracy against the narrow interests and brutal methods of the privileged bureaucracy, represented in the end by Stalin. Stalin wasn’t victorious because he was more intelligent or more prepared, but precisely because he was mediocre, something that fit the situation to a far greater degree.
A revolutionary epoch requires heroic leaders, great writers and speakers, and bold thinkers who can take the desires of the revolutionary masses and push the movement forward – such as Robespierre and Danton, or Lenin and Trotsky.
But a counterrevolutionary period is a period of ebb and demoralization. These periods do not require the giants of history, who often find themselves isolated and fighting against the stream, but require mediocre men of lesser stature.
Alan then discussed the topic of Trotskyism itself, which he explained doesn’t exist in reality. Trotskyism was an invention of Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin. The idea was to create a dividing line between Lenin and Trotsky in an effort to isolate the genuine revolutionaries struggling against the rise of the privileged bureaucracy. In reality, however, the ideas of Trotsky are rooted in and are not different from the ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin, and in fact represent a continuation of these ideas and traditions, going all the way back to The Communist Manifesto and earlier.
Many people argue that Trotsky lost because he didn’t understand tactics, or that he didn’t understand how far Stalin would go to defeat him. The reality was, on the basis of his understanding of Marxism and history, Trotsky knew that he was going to lose.
Alan explained that as Trotsky had pointed out, with the exception of the nationalized planned economy, Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union could only be compared historically to the fascist regimes of Mussolini and Hitler.
In this light, many have argued that the Soviet Union under Lenin and Trotsky was the same as the regime under Stalin. Many have argued that Trotsky and Stalin were really the same as well. But if this were truly the case, then why did Stalin annihilate the Bolshevik Party? Why did he have to annihilate the vanguard of the Old Bolsheviks?
Criminals cannot suffer witnesses, and likewise Stalin, one of the greatest criminals in all human history, could not have any witnesses. Trotsky knew that he could not win, knew that the movement of history was against him and watched as all those around him capitulated to Stalin and were killed.
Trotsky refused to capitulate. He fought to defend the banner of October, the genuine ideas of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party for future generations. Bukharin, Zinoviev and the others who capitulated lost everything, and no traditions based on their ideas remain. In this sense Trotsky was victorious, and he won for this generation of revolutionary workers and youth.
A vile and cruel counterrevolutionary assassin killed Trotsky with an ice pick. Stalin achieved his goal of killing his enemy. As Alan explained, human beings are frail and fragile. They can be shot, or stabbed, or otherwise killed. In fact, it is rather easy to end the life of an individual. Ideas are not so easily destroyed. It is not possible to kill an idea, especially an idea whose time has come.
Alan explained that in this sense too Trotsky was victorious. The ideas of Leon Trotsky, the ideas of Leninism, Bolshevism and the October Revolution did not die in August 1940. In fact, the struggle based on these ideas continues to this very day. It has been 76 years since the death of Leon Trotsky. Where are we today? The ideas of Trotsky, the ideas of Marxism, remain the only ideas today that can take us forward in the struggle against the misery, poverty, class exploitation and oppression we face under capitalism.
The fact that “Trotskyism” continues to haunt the bourgeoisie and the reformist and Stalinist leaderships of the labour movement is evidence of the power of these ideas. The ideas of genuine Marxism are the only ideas that can explain the problems of society and their solutions for the workers and youth. This is the power of these ideas that Stalin could not destroy.
Alan finished by explaining that the only way forward is to struggle, and to continue struggling on the basis of these ideas. People can unfortunately fall into despair, and want to hide away from the struggle. As has often been said, you can ignore politics but politics won’t ignore you. One can try to hide from it at home, but politics will inevitably come knocking at the door. For this reason we must be bold, prepared, and organize.
Alan finished his presentation by explaining the great revolutionary traditions of the Mexican people. The key task now is for the workers and youth to return to the ideas of Marxism to take the struggle forward. We must unite and organize around the ideas of Marxism. To this end he encouraged all present to read and study Stalin as well as the ideas found in the other works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. United on the basis of Marxist ideas, we can only win in our struggle against the misery of capitalism.
Discussion and remarks
The presentations of Esteban Volkov and Alan Woods were followed by a lively discussion. The discussion was mostly focused on how to take the movement and the struggle forward in Mexico and other various countries, and how to take the ideas of Trotsky and genuine socialism to the masses.
Esteban Volkov offered his final remarks by saying that we want a better world, and that the future of humanity depended on the achievement of a better world. There are two perspectives, either the destruction and misery of the planet under capitalism, or a humane world under socialism. He finished by offering a few memories on the death of Leon Trotsky, explaining that he was very pleased and proud that there were still so many interested in the ideas he defended.
Many of the questions in the discussion period had been directed to Alan Woods about the history of the Soviet Union and Stalinism. Alan explained the achievements of the nationalized planned economy, including the spectacular growth rates and scientific achievements that were achieved and never matched by any capitalist country, despite the gross corruption and mismanagement of the privileged bureaucracy in the USSR. These achievements offer us but a glimpse of what could be achieved with the building of genuine, international socialism.
One of the greatest lies put forward by the ruling class and the enemies of Marxism is that it was socialism that failed in the Soviet Union. In reality, what failed and what had to fail, as Trotsky explained and predicted in 1937, was Stalinism.
As Trotsky had explained in the 1930s, the nationalized planned economy requires democracy, genuine workers’ democracy, as the human body requires oxygen. Without genuine workers’ democracy, bureaucracy and corruption will take hold, as has been demonstrated repeatedly in history. The parasitic growth of the Soviet bureaucracy, which acted as a plug on the Soviet economy, are not arguments against economic planning, nationalization, or socialism, but rather are powerful arguments against Stalinism, bureaucratic mismanagement and corruption.
The final point of the discussion was on the developing world crisis of capitalism. The tide of history turned profoundly with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. But history is turning once again. The crisis of Stalinism has led to a much more profound crisis – the crisis of the capitalist system as a whole.
The crisis of the global capitalist system can be seen almost everywhere, from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America to Greece and Spain to Britain and now even the United States. In the United States, this was reflected in the rise of the Bernie Sanders phenomenon. Over a year ago almost no one had heard of Bernie Sanders, but with the crisis his call for a “political revolution against the billionaire class” resonated with people and found a powerful echo. Now is not a time for demoralization and despair, but a time of hope and optimism.
Alan finished the discussion but explaining that the crisis of capitalism was knocking people hard over the head, waking the masses from a long slumber, and now we are seeing the resulting shifts and changes in consciousness. The Marxists are still found but in small groups, but if we unite and organize around the ideas defended by Lenin and Trotsky, we can transmit these ideas to the mass of workers and youth. These ideas show us the way forward, and are the only ideas capable of leading to the overthrow of capitalism and the building of a truly human society – that of international socialism.