The Leningrad delirium

Submitted by AWL on 13 October, 2015 - 5:54

Among many other things, the new book published by Workers’ Liberty and edited by Sean Matgamna — “The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism” — digs out a dramatic lurch in the “Orthodox” Trotskyist movement in 1941, described in this excerpt.

The “Orthodox” were those who stuck to Trotsky’s formula of the Stalinist USSR being a “degenerated workers’ state” while, in the 1940s, the elements in reality on which Trotsky based that formula were changing dramatically. Along the way, they lurched one way and then another, never properly assessing their mistakes.

The book argues that the “Heterodox” — Max Shachtman, Al Glotzer, Hal Draper, CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and others — developed a much less garbled and corrupted continuation of Trotskyist politics.


In their weekly paper The Militant of 30 August and 6 September 1941, the Orthodox came close to suggesting that the Stalinist regime in Russia had suddenly ceased to exist.

The German siege of Leningrad, which would continue for 882 days, was beginning. Workers’ battalions were organised from Leningrad factories, those that had not been evacuated — on the initiative of and under the control of the Stalinist police. The people of the city were willing to resist: the Nazis had declared in leaflets dropped into the city that: “We will level Leningrad to the earth and destroy Kronstadt to the waterline”.

On 30 August 1941 the front page headline of The Militant announced: “Workers Arm To Save Leningrad”. Subheads: “Masses Inspired By Memories Of October 1917. Kremlin Finally Compelled To Make Appeal To Traditions Of The October Revolution As Workers Rally For Defense To The Death”. The Militant did everything that could be done by excited words, the flashing of romantic revolutionary images and reminiscences, and the arbitrary assignment of motives — the people defended nationalised property — to paint a picture of revolutionary workers acting outside the political control of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

“In the hour of gravest danger to Leningrad, birth-place of the October Revolution, its proletarian inhabitants are mobilising arms in hand to defend their city to the death against the German army. A tremendous revolutionary resurgence is sweeping the masses. Leningrad today is witness to scenes having their only parallel in the heroic days of the civil war, when, in October 1919, Yudenich’s army was crushed by the aroused might of the armed Leningrad proletariat.…

“In tremendous mass meetings the workers are shouting forth their defiance of the imperialist enemy. From every factory and shop, picked units of workers are joining the regular troops to help hold the battle lines and are filtering through to the enemy’s rear to aid the guerilla detachments.”

In fact the “units of workers” were “picked”, organised and controlled by the Stalinist apparatus. The Militant drew and coloured the picture as if the workers were no longer under the control of the bureaucracy’s murdering political police, the GPU.

The Kremlin, said The Militant, had been “compelled” to play a positive role in rousing the working class: “Today a Voroshilov is compelled to proclaim to the workers of Leningrad... ‘Leningrad was and is and shall forever remain the city or the great October Revolution’.” Everything was changed, changed... utterly!

“The masses of Leningrad are demonstrating that that is the appeal for which they have been waiting. Once again, as in the days of Lenin and Trotsky, they are surging forward, ready to die in defense of the conquests of the October Revolution”.

All this was false, arbitrary, political self-projection — foolishness. They substituted their own concerns and fantasies for the likely concerns of the Leningrad workers facing Nazi enslavement. It was wishful thinking — or even more discreditably, insincere calculation by some of the central SWP leaders of what would serve as a useful “party line”. It wrapped up Russian realities in ideological red ribbons, appealing political mirages, fantasies presented as hard fact, and blissful self-induced political amnesia about the Stalinist realities.

“The proletarian revolution within the Soviet Union exhibits irrepressible vitality. Despite the injuries laid by Stalin’s regime upon the revolutionary proletariat, its living forces well up in a mighty stream. Stalin, who disarmed the workers years ago. is now compelled to rearm them. The Stalinist bureaucracy takes this step with misgivings, at the most critical hour of its existence, in order to save its own skin. But that does not lessen the objective significance of the act. The arming of the people gives testimony that the workers’ state endures... Leningrad is not, like Paris and Brussels, ruled by a powerful capitalist clique which could oppose the arming of the people and their fight to the death against the fascists.”

And the Stalinist autocracy? The Nazis in 1944-5 “armed the people” in the Volksturm, and hundreds of thousands in that home guard died, resisting the Allies in the last months of the war. There was no capitalist clique in Berlin either? When Trotsky (and Cannon after him) said the bureaucratic autocracy had all the vices of all the ruling classes and seised a proportionately greater share of the social product in Russia than the rich in the advanced capitalist countries, that it deprived the workers even of the basic necessities of life, they were wrong? It wasn’t true? It had ceased to be true? The Russian workers hadn’t noticed?

Politically serious people would feel obliged to say how all that fitted into the picture they were now drawing of Russian Stalinist society. In this vein, the Orthodox were not serious political people but demagogues.

The readiness of the Leningrad workers to offer up their lives to save their city demonstrates that they know they are defending, not the privileges of Stalinist bureaucrats, but the nationalised property and other remaining conquests of the revolution”.

If they withstood the siege, the nationalised property would be in the hands of the workers and not of the autocracy?

The Militant continued: “The Stalinist propaganda machine strives to conceal the real character of this mass uprising... The masses of the USSR lack the necessary class organs through which to exercise their creative energies and mobilise their maximum forces. The Soviets, the trade-unions, Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, the Young Communist League — all these indispensable class agencies have been destroyed by the Stalinist regime... These institutions must be reborn and resume their commanding place in Soviet life. The arming of the people [by the Stalinist regime] is the first step in this direction.

“The class in arms possesses power to demand and to win the restoration of its political rights and its democratic institutions. The Soviet proletariat is in a position to move forward and regain all that has been taken from it by the Stalinist reaction”. The workers, or “the masses”, shared “dual power”, or something not far from it?

Even in its high delirium, The Militant did not forget to denounce and damn the Heterodox Trotskyists: “The Russian workers exhibit no signs of defeatism. Such renegacy belongs to the petty-bourgeois radicals in the capitalist countries”.

The front page headlines of The Militant of 6 September 1941, the second number issued under the imprimatur of political bedlam: “Masses Defend Soviet Cities. Hold Nazi Army At Odessa, Kiev And Leningrad. Traditions Of October 1917 Inspire Masses To Fight To Death Against Imperialists”. This outdid the previous issue in at least one respect. It carried a straightforwardly Stalinist cartoon on the front page, headed “A Tale of Two Cities”. It had two panels, labelled “Paris” and “Leningrad”. In “Paris” we see a bourgeois on his knees offering a giant key to a big Hitler figure stamped with a swastika. In “Leningrad” we see the Hitler figure crouching, almost on his knees and looming above him, much larger, is a muscular worker grimly rolling up his sleeves. The Stalinist autocracy is no part of the picture.

The Orthodox were still working on their translation of the idea that Russia remained a degenerated workers’ state because of the nationalised economy into the idea that the class character given to the “workers’ state” by nationalised economy pervaded everything and made it a state equipped with “the foundation of socialism”, one where “the masses” — the slave-driven masses — knew by experience “the superiority of living in a workers’ state”.

“In Leningrad... workers at the end of their factory shifts engage in vast defense drills... In mortal fear for its own existence, the Stalinist bureaucracy is finally forced to rally the workers by appeals to the real tradition of the Soviet Union — the October Revolution”. “All evidence points to the one inspiring fact: the October Revolution still lives and fights on”.

Their gratitude for a few words — Voroshilov’s reference to Leningrad as “the city of the Great October Revolution” — and their satisfaction, was not only pitiable but also evidence of their deep political demoralisation. Someone reading this without knowing what happened next would have thought that they were going over to a species of critical Stalinism, on the basis of out-of-control fantasy and self-delusion. In fact that’s what, politically speaking, they did.

Then they backtracked, recalled to something like sense by Natalia Sedova Trotsky [Trotsky’s widow]. Episodes of similar delirium, some worse, some better, would be a recurrent feature of the Orthodox over the decades to come.

This, I think, was the first appearance in the history of the Trotskyist movement of this sort of wilful, knowing or half-knowing, misrepresentation or downright falsification of reality in order to spin consoling fantasy as a useful party line.

Much that we see in The Militant’s coverage of the start of the siege of Leningrad must have been — as far as the party leaders were concerned — designed and angled to appeal to Communist Party members and supporters. Where calculation started and sincere delusion, whipped up among themselves by a small group of like-minded people, ended, is impossible to know.

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