To: Detroit Workers' Voice mailing list
August 31, 2015
RE: The failed legacy of Leon Trotsky

The sad story of Leon Trotsky
and Haile Selassie
  (part one)

by Joseph Green

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the vicious, criminal murder of Trotsky on August 21, 1940, carried out at the behest of Stalin. This has encouraged a flurry of interest in the new articles and books that continue to come out about Trotsky.

Trotsky was one of the prominent members of the Bolsheviks, and he also stood up against Stalin and was murdered for it. But his theorizing was flawed, and he never repudiated the essence of Stalinism. This is the reason why, over the years, the Trotskyist movement has made one horrible mistake after another.

One example of how this happened is the story of Trotsky’s extravagant praise of Haile Selassie. This might seem like a dusty old topic. But it’s a live topic in Trotskyist circles, and it affects major issues of recent times, such as the attitude to the Taliban and the conception of anti-imperialism. So let’s look into it.

Selassie was one of the absolute rulers of the Ethiopian Empire; he was Regent from 1916 to 1930, and Emperor from 1930 to 1974. Trotsky was right to back Ethiopia against Italian invasion and occupation during the latter 1930s, but wrong to prettify Selassie’s absolutism and wrong to regard Ethiopia as a blank slate, without significant internal struggles. On April 22, 1936, Trotsky wrote that workers faced “making a choice between two dictators”, either Mussolini or Haile Selassie. He didn’t look towards the victory of the Ethiopian people, but the “victory of the Negus”; “Negus” referred to Haile Selassie, and Trotsky was saying something like “victory of his royal majesty”. Trotsky held that “the victory of the Negus ... would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples.”

Trotsky also suggested that Selassie would play a role like major figures of the past bourgeois revolutions in England and France. However, on May 2, 1936, a mere week and a half after Trotsky described him as a powerful leader whose defeat of Italian imperialism might “play a very progressive role in history”, Selassie fled Ethiopia. Oops. The imperial regime was crumbling in the face of Italian advances. The resistance to Italian occupation would not be led by Selassie but, instead, turn into a partisan war against Italian occupation, led mainly by a movement called the Patriots. It was a forerunner in the Horn of Africa of the more well-known resistance movements in Europe in World War II. Moreover, the Patriots wanted not only to throw out the Italian fascists, but to achieve reforms in the Ethiopian regime. (Selassie returned to Ethiopia in 1941 with the help of British imperialist bayonets; the Italian fascists were thrown out, but hopes for reform in the Ethiopian regime were dashed.)

This makes a mockery of what Trotsky wrote about Selassie. Errors and wrong predictions can be corrected, but Trotsky refused to do so. Moreover, to this day, the Trotskyist movement continues to close its eyes to what really happened in Ethiopia. It hides the fact that Selassie fled Ethiopia. Instead it insists on regarding Trotsky’s comments on Selassie as the gold standard of anti-imperialism.

As a result, Trotskyist errors kept getting worse and worse. At least Trotsky was on the right side of the Italo-Ethiopian conflict. This was not a war in which workers should have opposed both sides, but one in which it was crucial to back the Ethiopian side. But some Trotskyist groups have backed Saddam Hussein or the Taliban as anti-imperialist fighters. These Trotskyists couldn’t understand how to oppose both Saddam Hussein and US imperialism, or both the Taliban and US imperialism. And some Trotskyists have denigrated popular movements against reactionary regimes, such as those against Qaddafi or Assad.

To do so, they have cited various Trotskyist dogmas, including Trotsky’s idea of Selassie’s anti-imperialist role. Yet, for example, to prettify the Taliban is to betray the Afghan people, and it is a repudiation of everything the left should stand for. It’s astonishing that some Trotskyists, such as the Workers World Party in the US or the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, could sink to this level. But so they have. I wrote a two-part article in 2002 about the struggle among Trotskyists over whether to support the Taliban. It dealt with the debate among British Trotskyists on this issue, as it was more open and informative than what appeared in Workers World. In this debate, the issue of Trotsky’s stand on Haile Selassie was raised.

See “The socialist debate on the Taliban” (January and June 2002):

Part one ( gives an analysis of the opposing views of Bob Pitt and Ian Donovan on the Taliban, both of whom refer to Trotsky’s view of Selassie. Their articles are appended as important reference material.

Part two ( contrasts Leninist view of anti-imperialism with Stalin’s view about the Emir of Afghanistan and Trotsky’s view about Haile Selassie. Trotsky’s views about Haile Selassie echo those of Stalin about the Emir.

Well, it’s been 79 years since Selassie fled Ethiopia in 1936. But the Trotskyist movement is still silent about this. It is astonishing to see one Trotskyist article after another that discusses Trotsky’s stand on Selassie, and fails to mention that Selassie fled. For example, an article in 2006 in Socialist Worker was devoted to discussing Trotsky’s stand on Ethiopia, and not only never mentioned that Selassie fled, but glorified his military role with a picture captioned “Emperor Haile Selassie inspecting his troops during the invasion”. The famous three-volume biography of Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher ignored Ethiopia completely. Pathfinder Press published volume after volume of Trotsky’s writings, including the letter that praised Haile Selassie as an anti-imperialist: it footnoted this and that, but neglected to mention Selassie fleeing Ethiopia, the partisan war in Ethiopia, or what happened after Selassie returned.

Earlier this month, I raised on Proyect’s Marxism list the issue of Trotsky’s glorification of Haile Selassie. Several people sought to defend Trotsky’s stand, but not one of them would address the issue that Selassie had fled, or what really happened in the resistance against Italian occupation. Instead they pretended that criticism of Trotsky’s extravagant backing of Selassie meant refusing to back the Ethiopian side of the war with Italian imperialism.

This says a lot about the Trotskyist method. It isn’t a materialist method. It doesn’t compare Trotsky’s views to the events in Ethiopia, but relies on pretending that opponents of Trotskyism are devils who don’t support the anti-imperialist struggle. Meanwhile, since the Trotskyist movement hasn’t examined the history of the struggle in Ethiopia, how can it learn from it? And doesn’t hiding for 79 years Selassie’s flight from Ethiopia mean that the Trotskyist movement is as guilty of the falsification of history as the Stalinists?

In part two, I will outline some of the events in the Ethiopian struggle against Italian invasion and occupation. This will provide background for part three, in which I will discuss in more detail the difference between Trotsky’s extravagant praise for Selassie and a standpoint that would have been more useful to the world working class with respect to the struggle in Ethiopia.

(The quotes from Trotsky glorifying Selassie are from “On Dictators and the Heights of Oslo: Letter to an English Comrade”, April 22, 1936. It is available in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-36), Pathfinder Press, pp. 317-320,
or at <>

Back to main page, how to order CV, write us! 

Last posted, May 23, 2017