Trotskyism and Historical Responsibility

Trotskyism and Historical Responsibility

This article is written in response to Trotskyism at the end of the war and the democratic struggle’, a recent essay by Tim Nelson of the International Socialist Network (ISN). The piece follows the perspectives of Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman, two factional leaders who espoused criticisms of orthodox Trotskyism’s ‘catastrophist’ perspective, and begins by referencing the split in the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in April 1940. The SWP had been the largest and most successful of affiliates to the post-war Trotskyist Fourth International, and the split was the first of many significant ruptures in the now grotesquely fractured family tree of Trotskyist groupings.

Nelson traces Morrow and Goldman’s counter-narrative to Trotskyist orthodoxy throughout the Second World War, problematizing the cultures of bureaucratic manoeuvring and heresy hunting which were entrenched in the tradition following the expulsion of Max Schachtman. The piece further analyses the failure of crudely applied Trotskyist schema, in particular the predictions of the imminent collapse of capitalism post-war, to come to fruition.

Despite being a worthy analysis of many issues in relation to the Trotskyist tradition, the article’s uncritical exposition of the Morrow and Goldman ‘line’ is itself an example of a much deeper problem lying at the heart of Trotskyism.  Inadvertently, the piece is itself an artefact of mutilated historiography, disconnected from history and obsessed with programmatic details over the complexity and depth of actual events. At the heart of this distortion is the paucity of historical data, and the preference for abstract arguments of moral principle expressed as a linear analysis of the programmatic perspectives of the Communist International (Comintern).  Particularly, there is a persistent elision and clumsy blend of the Comintern’s regional organisational policies with the geopolitical manoeuvring of Moscow – coolly presented as fact – in total conflict with any detailed assessment of those groups and their activities. These tendencies are exemplified the article by some particularly glaring historical inaccuracies, which we intend to address.


In discussing the resistance movement to Nazism during the Second World War, Nelson makes several inaccurate claims in relation to the anti-monarchist social movements which emerged in Greece, as well as resistance organisations which would later participate in the Greek Civil War (1945-49). Firstly, and very significantly, it is claimed in the essay that the establishment of the National Liberation Front (EAM) was the independent action of numerous rank-and-file organisations, over which the Communist Party had no decisive influence, and that the EAM

[h]ad not developed as a result of the initiation of any organisation, but was a spontaneous movement, formed originally out of defeated military units and largely based on the peasantry.

This claim is important, as the EAM would progress to become the sole source of opposition to the monarchy in Greece, as well as the only effective military force in fighting both against the Nazi occupation and for an independent post-war Greece. A claim that the establishment of EAM had nothing to do with the KKE implicitly raises a suggestion that other groups had the organizational potential to resist both Nazi occupation and Allied encroachment independently.

Unfortunately, it is entirely false. EAM was established entirely on the instigation of the KKE, the overwhelmingly predominant group within the organisation. During the pre-war authoritarian regime of Ioannis Metaxas, the KKE had been organisationally destroyed as a result of heavy repression, with over 2,000 members languishing in jail and countless militants in exile. During the Nazi occupation, several hundred members were able to escape from prison and set to work reconstituting the Party, achieving some stability by September 1941.

The decision to create the EAM was made at the 7th plenum of the KKE in the same month, their influence in the development of EAM branches obvious – utilizing a model based upon the KKE’s own semi-underground structure, regional committees were established alongside subsidiary ‘fronts’ (the youth movement EPON, the Trade Union EEAM, welfare organisation EA, and ultimately the military wing ELAS). In reality, without the example and leadership of the re-established KKE there would have been no effective resistance movement against either Nazi occupation or the re-imposition of a pro-British regime at the head of the reunified Greece after the war.

Nelson also uses a mutilated interpretation of EAM’s organisational ‘popular frontism’ to pursue a classic Trotskyist criticism of a reformist ‘cop-out’ to the establishment. The KKE’s aforementioned strategy, Nelson says, which was attempting to unite all resistance forces on a national basis, also meant unity with

remnants of the old regime which remained loyal to the monarchy and were backed by British imperialism. Despite the resistance movements largely being based upon the working class and the peasantry, the EAM refused to raise issues of social change in the hope of maintaining the support of the ruling class and of the Allies.

Though it is true that the KKE pursued the Comintern strategy of creating national resistance movements, it not true in any sense that the KKE was uncritical of monarchism or that they refused to raise issues of social change.

ELAS, the military wing of EAM, began its military crusade against the Nazis in May 1942 with a series of attacks on police stations and murders of gendarmes. Rival monarchist militias, EDES and EKKA (both funded and armed by the British) found themselves in immediate conflict with the group – and ELAS conducted a series of reprisals against them, effectively dissolving their organizations. A vicious conflict raged throughout the early months of the resistance between competing British and Communist interests, over which little compromise was reached.

British, Communist and monarchist interests temporarily coincided in 1943 during the British-organised Operation Animals against German forces; Britain negotiated the National Bands of Agreement, which officially recognised various resistance groups and strove to form a united national resistance. Even in this instance, however, ELAS – fearful of establishing pro-monarchy militias across the country – dissolved EDES and EKKA units in the Peloponnese and Macedonia before they could be officially recognised under the agreement. This period of partial cooperation with the British was short-lived, with the agreement falling apart by the end of March 1944 and the pro-British government of Papandreou swiftly disbanding ELAS with ease.

The temporary defeat of ELAS in 1944 relates to a further inaccuracy in the essay. When discussing the development of the Anti-Fascist Organisation in the army (the ASO), Nelson implies through omission that the organisation was an independent movement of soldiers over which the KKE had no influence:

Unrest was first to appear within the military units formed by the Greek Government in Exile stationed in Egypt. In October 1941, Greek soldiers who opposed those that remained loyal to the Metaxas regime and the monarchy formed the Military Organisation for Liberation (ASO) and there were two mutinies, the latter of which was much more serious and culminated in brutal repression by the Greek Government in Exile and the British High Command.

Again, the implication that another group paralleling the Communists had the potential to organisationally oppose fascism and monarchism is false. The ASO, in fact, had been established in October 1941 by KKE member Yannas Salas, and ASO membership was synonymous with the KKE led EAM. Due to its separation from mainland Greece, the ASO acted semi-autonomously from the main party but in accordance with its general perception of the KKE line. The organisation pledged itself, in the first instance, to fight alongside the Allies for the liberation of Greece (in entire organisational accordance with the Popular Front line of the KKE and Comintern) and was subsequently engaged in multiple mutinies leading to its eventual dissolution.

In August 1943, delegates from the resistance united by the British agreement – including communists – were invited to the government-in-exile to contribute towards future Greek governmental policy. The delegates voted unanimously against the return of the King to Greece until a plebiscite had been called, but the British insisted upon his return. This event coincided with the British formation of anti-communist groups in mainland Greece and a Nazi offensive against ELAS. In response to these attacks, ELAS began to dissolve rival British-led groups, failing only to entirely dissolve EDES, the rightist competition. In March 1944, EAM established the Political Committee of National Liberation (PEEA) in collaboration with high-profile social democrats and other notable left-wing figures, proving to be popular with the general public.

It was in this period that the second wave of ASO mutinies erupted in Cairo amongst the soldiery in solidarity with the PEEA government (but without official sanction from the Party). The protests were rapidly suppressed by the British, but also unfortunately coincided with the visit of popular social democrat Andreas Papandreou to Cairo to host a separate conference for the establishment of a Greek government with less communist involvement. The ASO mutiny isolated the KKE in these negotiations – in which they were only given 3 out of 24 delegate seats, despite their overwhelming dominance in domestic Greek politics. The tiny KKE delegation were separated from their Social Democratic allies and forced to accept a compromise agreement incorporating the new government, which significantly did not include any control of government ministries over the army or police force.

When the KKE delegation returned, the terms of this new government were rejected outright by the PEEA, who redesigned themselves as a revolutionary government for the outright seizure of power. Papandreou’s government had, however, been successful in uniting the Greek public behind a non-revolutionary post-war settlement. Combined with British policies of regenerative investment and aid which the KKE could not match, the Greek public began to move behind Papandreou’s government; the most prominent non-communist PEEA minister Alexandras Svolos insisted, upon his return from Cairo, the acceptance of Papandreou’s government, under threat of resignation, taking all non-communists in the PEEA government with him.

Abandoned and politically isolated, the KKE were forced to accept the new agreement under even less favourable terms than those offered at the conference. Nelson’s depiction of a cynical pro-monarchist policy pushed by the KKE in response to Moscow’s geopolitical isolation of their movement is clearly a grossly inaccurate generalization of the much more complicated ebbs and flows of Greek politics in this period. The fact that within a brief period the KKE was again at war with the British sponsored government in a conflict which would rage until the end of the forties goes on to further discredit the idea that the KKE had given up the ghost on fighting for communism in Greece, despite their abandonment by Moscow.

Where the article does not fall prey to straight-up inaccuracies, similar confused articulations of Trotskyist generalization permeates the international analysis of several other periods.


Moving onto the question of Italy, Nelson quotes Morrow that anti-fascist strikes began in March 1943 – with their centre in Milan – as an ‘elemental movement from below’. In fact, the strikes originated in Turin (a base of the Italian proletariat far more radical than Milan) by PSI and PCI members. Nelson also points to the refusal of the PCI to call for the abolition of the monarchy, and the call – in tandem with Comintern policy – for the broadest possible national front against fascism – as further evidence of Popular Frontist betrayal.

However, as Joan Barth Urban points out, this position did not mean that there was any serious cooperation between Communists and centrist or right-wing forces. As a party committed to revolutionary tumult and for a Soviet Italy, traditionalist forces were deeply suspicious of the PCI’s newfound sincerity towards the House of Savoy. The PCI had consciously precluded any direct challenge to Italian capital as a temporary measure, a way to postpone the problem of state organisation during the Resistance (still engaged in a conflict far from victory) and focus the struggle against Hitler’s puppet state in the North.

Even by his own standard (Nelson notes as much himself) the taste was not there for a radical reorganisation of society amongst the general population. Whilst the PCI certainly numbed the revolutionary impulses of many of its own fighters, one may wish to consider its reasoning for suspending class-struggle politics until after war’s end seriously. The same PCI was instrumental in demanding a successful referendum on abolishing the monarchy immediately following the war. The People’s Democratic Front electoral ticket resembled in practice the joint-party front that Trotskyism advocated in Germany against the confident and independently-minded KPD. As a coalition between the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the Italian socialists (PSI), both relied on their wartime prestige and proletarian confidence against the massed reaction of the Catholic Church and the bourgeoisie.


Nelson’s article represents the general Trotskyist historiographical reduction of complex historical periods (defined by the strategical ambiguity of genuine bids for power) into simple moral dichotomies related to the ‘purity’ and correctness of slogans and programme. Ironically, excusing casual criticisms of the Comintern and the retreat from politics into moral schema, the piece begrudgingly accepts the complex political environment which emerged from the end of WWII and into which much Comintern policy was placed. For instance, borrowing from the Morrow and Goldman analysis, the essay validates the position that the populations of post-war Europe were unwilling to fight for socialism, but willing to fight for democracy:

They feared that the Trotskyist movement continuing to expect, and plan for, revolution would ultimately lead it in an ultra-left direction. They argued for a concentration on democratic demands which would orientate the Trotskyist movement towards the pace the workers’ struggle was actually moving at.

Indeed, a central point of the entire piece is that Trotskyists should have positioned themselves realistically – in response to the post-war triumph of social democracy – focusing upon arguing for radical-democratic (as opposed to revolutionary) demands. For the same reason the piece continually returns to anti-monarchical and Republican struggles:

Morrow and Goldman argued that democratic demands were central to the struggle in Europe, and this was proven by the mass movements developing against the monarchy in countries such as Italy and Belgium.

Despite this position, however, the piece consistently fails to apply the proposition into practice. Morrow is quoted favourably on the situation of post-war Belgium, in his comments on the anti-monarchy strikes of the early 1950s, where he introduced a list of demands to be put to the American SWP:

  1. Expulsion from the government of the bourgeois ministers, who are favourable to Leopold’s return. Thereby the government would be transformed into a Socialist-Communist government.
  2. Arrest of the royal family, including the Regent, and other reactionaries and industrialists who are plotting with Leopold for his return.
  3. Immediate proclamation of the democratic republic.
  4. Authorisation of election of soldiers’ committees by the Belgian regiments.
  5. Arming of the workers. Control of production by elected factory committees to assure continued production for the needs of the workers.

Such demands represent the strategy of the ‘transitional programme’ – radical demands set to show up both Communists and Social Democrats for their lack of radicalism. Nelson further writes that

[t]he task of revolutionaries was to raise these slogans in order to contrast what the social democratic and Stalinist parties should do, and more importantly, what the workers were expecting them to do, with what they actually did. The Leopold crisis in Belgium was an opportunity to do this – the Socialist and Communist parties opposed his return , but supported the retention of monarchy as an institution.

The programme of demands is clearly delusional in scope – and once again a complex position of strategy and tactics is reduced to a simplistic equation demanding adherence to an unwinnable and hopelessly unpopular programme. In 1950, a plebiscite on the retention of the monarchy was lost by the Communists and leftist elements in the Social Democrats, with 73% of the Belgian public voting in favour of the return of the King. Communists then went on to orchestrate a massive strike in June of that year to coincide with the monarch’s return, supporting the mass protests which occurred throughout the Wallonia region.

They paid dearly for this intransigence. Julien Lahaut, the face of Communism and republicanism in Belgium, had been a national hero for his role in the resistance (organising the ‘strike of the 100,000’ under Nazi occupation, for which he was deported to Dachau.) Under the severe conditions of Nazi military rule, the strike won a significant increase in pay for Belgian workers. In August 1950, Lahaut allegedly shouted “Vive la Republique!” during the oath-taking ceremony swearing in the new King. He was killed on his doorstep by royalist militants a fortnight later.

The 20th Century, in particular both world wars, have been the most bloody and significant periods of recorded human history. Throughout the course of the 1939-45 war, millions lost their lives fighting against Nazism. The Jews of Europe were nearly eradicated in less than four years, and the Soviet Union (home of the first successful communist revolt) was battered by the pressures of war and dictatorship. Placed within proper context, Nelson’s article presents a clumsy hierarchy of considerations.

For the International Socialist tradition, in which Nelson is trained, the Communist movement of the twentieth century is the bogeyman of the working class, performing the most shocking and outrageous activities in order to further the tyrannical rule of Russia. This narrative presents itself in defiance of all accepted academic knowledge, which clearly displays the challenging and mass nature of Communist Parties during the inter and post-war periods.

Contrary to the Trotskyist claim that Communists in the resistance engaged in crude patriotic sloganeering in order to gain anti-German credibility amongst occupied populations, Communists commonly pervaded an enthusiastic internationalism and a fervent, almost religious, dedication to what they fought for. Such belief allowed them to mobilise far beyond the means of any patriotic call. As an example of their widespread support, the French Communist Party (PCF)’s very active immigrant resistance group Francs-tireurs et partisans – main-d’œuvre immigrée (FTP-MOI) could claim singer Charles Aznavour’s family as members, alongside Italian professional footballer Rino Della Negra, Hungarian-Jewish chemical engineer Josef Boczov and soon-to-be-noted writer Jorge Semprun, an Espagnol rouge. Individual Communist militants, far from cynical agents of Stalin, were well-meaning working class activists who often  paid a dear price for their political activity; so much so that the PCF could feasibly lay claim to being le parti des 75,000 fusille (the party of 75,000 dead, a reference to the number of PCF militants executed by the Nazis).

In the shadow of the insurrectionary history of the Communist resistance across Europe, it is difficult not to view with cynicism Nelson’s claim that ‘nowhere in Europe was there a revolutionary party beyond the small, isolated sects of the Fourth International’. With the Communist Party dismissed as a ‘traditional’ worker’s party, we can only assume that the actions of European communists were totally undermined through the connection of their organisations with Moscow. But if the actions of the Communists themselves do not count in any meaningful sense, why are we to take at face value the idea that the Trotskyists were revolutionaries? Their organisations – worse than being corrupted – were irrelevant. Their activities bore no impact on European events, the courage of their personal convictions never being tested in practice. As a side note, it should also be noted that one of the central figures in Nelson’s article – Felix Morrow – hardly stuck to his thoroughly thrashed-out principles throughout his own life, working for the CIA in the fifties (during his time as a publishing big-wig) smuggling copies of Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago into the Soviet Union.

The narrow focus of the article on the in-and-outs between a set of organizations representing mere hundreds of members – set against the most exciting, important and transformative events of the twentieth century – is significant. This is not a personal attack, as the piece is clearly a thorough and sincere exposition of its stated target, the post-war Trotskyist tradition. Rather, it is a criticism of the tools used – in this instance that same Trotskyist historiography – on the nature of the Popular Front and Muscovite influence in the Comintern. Both tools are clearly inadequate in convincingly analysing the events around which they orient themselves.

With their near total divorce from the working class and mass movements, Trotskyist groups have been incapable of surmounting the theoretical gap between themselves and those they seek to represent. The tradition has experienced a wasted century, leaving a parallel legacy of inactivity in need of constant internal justification and external mud-slinging. The communist movement, for all of its many faults, represented the only mass revolutionary working class movement throughout the 20th Century. Divorced and deliberately distanced from this movement, the Trotskyist tradition has effectively removed the positive potential that any of its criticisms or theories may have potentially offered that movement, and has undoubtedly served as the basis for its greatest failing.

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