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You are here: Platypus /Archive for tag Trotsky

Richard Rubin
Lecture 1: Overview of Trotskyism and its significance for Platypus

Part of the Summer 2012 Platypus Affiliated Society Primary Reading Group Lecture Series: Trotsky and Trotskyism

Recorded on 6.16.12
The New School

• recommended / + supplemental reading

Week 1 Readings:
• Tariq Ali and Phil Evans, Introducing Trotsky and Marxism / Trotsky for Beginners (1980)
• Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects (1906)

Full Syllabus and Readings


Ben Lewis and Tom Riley with Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 47 | June 2012

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]  [Video Recording]

On March 31, 2012, the Platypus Affiliated Society invited Ben Lewis of the Communist Party of Great Britain and Tom Riley of the International Bolshevik Tendency to speak on the theme of “Lenin and the Marxist Left after #Occupy” at the 2012 Platypus International Convention held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The original description of the event reads as follows: “The occasion for this panel is, in part, Pham Binh’s recent critique of Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin, which was circulated on the web and published in the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Weekly Worker, and the responses in on-going debate by Paul LeBlanc and Paul D’Amato. This panel discussion is to be focused on political tasks of the Left in the present (especially after the emergence of #Occupy) in light of the history of Marxism and Lenin’s place in it. Specifically, the present paralysis or rearguard character of the Marxist Left, as well as the preponderance of anarchist political sentiments, need to be addressed in light of Lenin’s mixed and highly contentious legacy: What is to be done with Lenin?” What follows is an edited transcript of the event. A full audio recording is available online at <>.


Chris Cutrone: Our third panelist, Pham Binh, had an emergency and is unable to attend. I will introduce briefly the topic for this panel, and then I will try to represent the most recent instantiation of Pham Binh’s critique of the International Socialist tradition’s—the International Socialist Organization (ISO)’s in the U.S. and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)’s in Britain—interpretation of Lenin. I am going to try to represent how Binh has articulated his interest in raising this issue in the context of #Occupy.

The title of this panel is “Lenin and the Marxist Left after #Occupy.” The occasion for this is Pham Binh’s recent critique of Tony Cliff’s multi-volumed biography of Lenin, originally written in the 1970s. This critique by Binh was circulated on the web, first on Louis Proyect’s blog The Unrepentant Marxist, and then republished in the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Weekly Worker.[1] Several responses and an ongoing debate have taken place, conducted by representatives of the ISO, namely, Paul LeBlanc, a scholar of this period in the history of Marxism, and Paul D’Amato, a leading member of the ISO.

In Pham Binh’s absence, let me represent what he had to say about why he has been motivated since last summer, before the emergence of #Occupy, but also through the experience of participating in #Occupy, and, then, the quiescent period of #Occupy during the winter, to return to a project of critiquing Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin, and specifically the International Socialists’ tradition of interpretation of Lenin since the 1970s. In his most recent article, he states that the question of politics, of political party, and of political form, has been raised by #Occupy. He interprets Lenin not as a vanguardist in the sectarian sense, in the sense of a political organization that acts as the vanguard for the movement; rather, he interprets Lenin as very much concerned with political form. #Occupy is, for Binh, such a political form: #Occupy is a vanguard of democratic struggle and the struggle against capitalism, to achieve socialism.

In that respect, this reinterpretation of Lenin has also found expression elsewhere, namely, Lars Lih’s retranslation and reinterpretation of What is to be Done?,[2] as well as his more recently published political biography of Lenin;[3] also, in some of the work done around the CPGB in terms of looking at Lenin’s relationship to 2nd International Marxism, the Kautskyan conception of Marxism and the party.

The other point that I would make, that Binh doesn’t raise but that I think is important with respect to Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin, is looking back to the 1970s, because I think it bears on the question of #Occupy. If we think about the 2008 crisis and its ramifications in similar terms to the crisis of the 1970s, then we must recognize that this Tony Cliff International Socialist tradition made a deliberate turn in the 1970s, away from how they conceived their Marxism in the 1960s as a kind of “Luxemburgism,” and shifted in the 70s to an avowed “Leninism.” Cliff himself, in taking up this multi-volume biography of Lenin in the 70s, was motivated by a renewed currency and relevance of Lenin that was widely shared. In the 1970s, there was a Marxist-Leninist turn, there was a growth of Maoism, as well as of Trotskyism; there was a “return to Leninism.” The difference in the post-2008 moment is the conspicuous absence of the currency and relevance of Lenin.

Leninism: “Irreconcilable ideological demarcation”[4]

Tom Riley: We are indeed living in peculiar times: The Marxist critique of the irrationality of production for profit is powerfully vindicated on a daily basis. “Capitalism” has become a dirty word, and the popular legitimacy of the existing social order is as low as it has ever been since the 1930s. Yet the organized Left has never been weaker in terms of numbers, influence, and the ability to project a vision of a plausible alternative to the endless horrors of the “free market.” This is clearly a very contradictory situation.

We believe that the struggle to politically rearm the Left and lay the basis for a resurgent revolutionary workers’ movement must begin by assimilating the essential lessons—both positive and negative—of the generations of militants who have preceded us. Above all this means studying the lessons of October 1917, the only successful workers’ revolution in history.

Let me begin with what I think is the bottom line: the essential precondition for the success of the Bolshevik Revolution was recognizing the necessity to split the workers’ movement. That is, for revolutionaries to organize themselves separately from opportunists, centrists, and reformists.

James P. Cannon, the best communist leader America has produced so far, contrasted Lenin’s role with two other revolutionary giants, Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg:

Trotsky’s greatest error, the error which Trotsky had to recognize and overcome before he could find his way to unity with Lenin, was his insistence that the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks had to unite….Lenin’s policy was vindicated in life. Lenin built a party, something that Luxemburg was not able to do with all her great abilities and talents; something that Trotsky was not able to do precisely because of his wrong estimation of the Mensheviks.[5]

Trotsky explicitly acknowledged this in the first chapter of his 1929 book, The Permanent Revolution:

I believed that the logic of the class struggle would compel both [Bolshevik and Menshevik] factions to pursue the same revolutionary line. The great historical significance of Lenin’s policy was still unclear to me at that time, his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purpose of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party.[6]

Trotsky was a bit slow to absorb that lesson. He had been in the movement a long time by 1917 when he finally came around to Leninism. But once he learned it he never forgot it. The Left Opposition, which he led and which alone upheld the political heritage of Bolshevism through the Stalinist nightmare, was built on the basis of always putting "program first."

Lenin’s conception from relatively early on was that a revolutionary organization should be composed exclusively of revolutionaries, i.e. people who understood and agreed with the Marxist program and were prepared to act in a disciplined fashion to carry it out. The famous split at the 1903 RSDLP [Russian Social Democratic Labor Party] Congress between Menshevik “softs” and Bolshevik “hards” over this question prefigured the eventual division over whether to support or overthrow Kerensky and his bourgeois provisional government in 1917.

The Leninist conception of “democratic centralism” is based on full freedom of discussion internally—including the right to modify the program and change the leadership. That is the “democratic” part. The “centralist” element involves the duty of all members to carry out the decisions of the majority—even those decisions that they personally may not agree with—until they win a majority and can change them.

Some people, including the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), who consider themselves Leninists, think it is fine for members to disagree with each other in public. The CPGB has the unique distinction of claiming the Leninist tradition while also embracing “the renegade Kautsky.” Lenin derided this kind of “broad church” approach as “swamp-building.” We agree with him, but to each their own. The comrades of the CPGB are certainly welcome to Kautsky as far as we are concerned.

Of course we are here because of the ripples caused by comrade Pham Binh’s critique of the first volume of Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin. Cliff was neither a great writer nor an outstanding historian, and his book would be of little interest except for the fact that he was the leader of the International Socialist Tendency, an organization which no one could accuse of ever putting “program first.”

Cliff deserted the Trotskyist movement in 1950 when, under the pressure of the Cold War, he refused to defend North Korea (and Red China) against military attack by the U.S. and various other imperialist powers and their vassals. For most of the next two decades the International Socialism Group (IS) was buried in Britain’s social-democratic Labour Party, during which time (in 1959) Cliff published a study of Rosa Luxemburg that provides some insight into his group’s politics at the time. Cliff applauded Luxemburg’s notion, developed prior to the experience of the Bolshevik Revolution, that somehow the working class could more or less spontaneously overthrow capitalism and wield state power without any sort of general staff to provide leadership.

For most of her active political life Luxemburg operated as the leader of a small revolutionary faction within the mass reformist German Social Democratic Party. In contrasting this model with Lenin’s, Cliff concluded: “For Marxists, in advanced industrial countries, Lenin's original position can much less serve as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s.”[7] By 1968, when the IS got around to reprinting the book, Lenin was more in vogue, so the offending passage was simply excised without any explanation. That is not how serious Marxists operate, but it is typical of Cliff and the political tendency he created.

While there is much to object to in Cliff’s biography of Lenin, for the most part comrade Binh and I do not share the same criticisms. I do not agree, for example, with his assertion that the original 1903 split with the Mensheviks had no particular importance. For those who may not have read his critique I will quote from it:

Cliff is like most other “Leninists” who invest the 1903 membership debate with an artificial and ahistorical significance. If Lenin did not mention the issue in his discussion on the “Principle Stages in the History of Bolshevism” in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder written for foreign communist audiences unfamiliar with RSDLP history it could not have been a terribly important issue from his point of view.[8]

When I read this I was astounded. I could not imagine how anyone could dismiss the split with the Mensheviks so lightly. When I went back and checked Lenin’s account in Left-Wing Communism, which Binh used to back up his claim, I discovered the following passage in the fifth paragraph of the second chapter:

As a current of political thought and as a political party, Bolshevism has existed since 1903. Only the history of Bolshevism during the entire period of its existence can satisfactorily explain why it has been able to build up and maintain, under most difficult conditions, the iron discipline needed for the victory of the proletariat.[9]

A little further on Lenin writes,

On the one hand, Bolshevism arose in 1903 on a very firm foundation of Marxist theory. The correctness of this revolutionary theory, and of it alone, has been proved, not only by world experience throughout the nineteenth century, but especially by the experience of the seekings and vacillations, the errors and disappointments of revolutionary thought in Russia….On the other hand, Bolshevism, which had arisen on this granite foundation of theory, went through fifteen years of practical history (1903–17) unequalled anywhere in the world in its wealth of experience.[10]

This suggests that Lenin viewed 1903 as somewhat significant.

The first section of the third chapter (which comrade Binh specifically cited) is entitled “The Years of Preparation for Revolution: 1903 to 1905.” I would like to read a few sentences from this:

Representatives of the three main classes, of the three principal political trends—the liberal-bourgeois, the petty-bourgeois-democratic (concealed behind “social-democratic” and “social-revolutionary” labels), [Here the editors of the Marxist Internet Archive comment: “The reference is to the Mensheviks (who formed the Right and opportunist wing of Social-Democracy in the R.S.D.L.P.), and to the Socialist-Revolutionaries.”] and the proletarian-revolutionary [i.e., the Bolsheviks]—anticipated and prepared the impending open class struggle by waging a most bitter struggle on issues of programme and tactics. All the issues on which the masses waged an armed struggle in 1905–07 and 1917–20 can (and should) be studied, in their embryonic form, in the press of the period.[11]

Lenin is quite clearly asserting that the fight between these three trends posed “all the issues” of the subsequent revolutionary struggles of 1905 and 1917 and that they “can (and should) be studied in their embryonic form, in the press of the period,” i.e., in the polemics against the Mensheviks that begin in 1903.

Comrade Binh is similarly mistaken in his assessment that Cliff’s treatment of Lenin’s seminal work, What is to be Done, is “unremarkable” apart from a suggestion that Lenin may have bent some of the party rules now and then for factional purposes. In fact what is “remarkable” was Cliff’s claim that Lenin’s book displayed a “mechanical juxtaposition of spontaneity and consciousness” because he asserted that through their own isolated experiences workers can only develop trade-union consciousness, which, as Lenin explains, is a form of bourgeois consciousness. This is why it is necessary to struggle to bring the workers’ movement “under the wing of the revolutionary” party. Cliff takes this as evidence that Lenin “assumed that the party had answers to all the questions that spontaneous struggle might bring forth. The blindness of the embattled many is the obverse of the omniscience of the few.”[12]

Binh may not find that “remarkable,” but I do, particularly from someone claiming to be writing some sort of manual on Leninism. Cliff’s philistine remark is an attack on the entire Bolshevik conception of the relationship between the conscious revolutionary vanguard and the mass of the “class in itself.” It is textbook anarcho/social-democratic anti-Leninism. Cliff’s organic hostility to What is to be Done? is hardly accidental: Lenin’s whole book is a polemic against opportunists who adapt their politics to whatever illusions are currently popular. Lenin called such people “tailists” and the International Socialists provide a perfect contemporary example.

When Cliff’s book first appeared, Bruce Landau, a disaffected former IS-er, published a stimulating and incisive critique in which he identified a series of critical errors by Cliff: failure to grasp Lenin’s analysis of “Economism;”[13] misrepresentation of the reasons for launching Iskra; and misreading the significance of both the 1903 split and the 1905 turn to mass worker recruitment—which Cliff mistakenly described as Lenin’s “correction” of his earlier conception of a party of professional revolutionaries.

Another work that came out around the same time, which dealt with Cliff in passing, was Lenin and the Vanguard Party by Joseph Seymour, the leading intellectual of the then-revolutionary Spartacist League. We consider this pamphlet to be an extremely valuable study of the origins and development of Bolshevism and have posted it to our website.[14]

I found Lars Lih’s commentaries on the discussions at the 1905 congress and the 1912 Prague conference to be among the more informative contributions to the discussions of Binh’s critique of Cliff. Contrary to comrade Binh, the Prague conference is generally seen as marking the point of no return for any prospect of a Bolshevik/Menshevik reunification, although, as Seymour observed:

Even before 1912, the Bolsheviks were essentially a party, rather than a faction, because Lenin would refuse to act as a disciplined minority under a Menshevik leadership. The Menshevik leaders, including Plekhanov, reciprocated this attitude. Unity with the numerically small “pro-Party” Mensheviks did not challenge Lenin’s leadership of the party as he reconstructed it at the Prague Conference.[15]

Comrade [Ben] Lewis and I briefly discussed the 1912 conference last night and I was rather surprised to discover that we could agree that, from that point onward, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks maintained separate underground apparatuses, leaderships, finances and publications (with sharply divergent political positions on most issues). The only thing they shared was a name—the RSDLP. To my mind that signifies that they constituted two separate and distinct organizations. Comrade Lewis draws a different conclusion which he will no doubt explain shortly.

Finally, I want to comment on what comrade Binh sees as the inevitability of bureaucratic degeneration in groups with a democratic-centralist organizational structure. I think he is mistaken. There have been groups which operated within that framework for decades that maintained democratic internal regimes. I would cite the American Trotskyist movement led by James P. Cannon from the 1920s to the 1960s as an example of a group that operated in an essentially democratic fashion, where dissident points of view could get a hearing and minority rights were respected. I believe there are other examples as well.

In the decade between the launch of Iskra and the 1912 conference, the Bolshevik faction evolved from a revolutionary social-democratic formation (inspired by the German social democracy led by Kautsky) into an embryonic revolutionary combat party. Along the way a few sticks were bent, some doors were slammed, voices were raised and harsh words exchanged. Lenin undoubtedly made some mistakes and got some things wrong. But he had a pretty good record of correcting his errors and probably came as close as anyone has to “combining theory and practice to perfection”—a phrase in comrade Cliff’s book that Binh found objectionable. The simple fact is that Lenin’s party succeeded where every other attempt has failed. That was no accident—and I submit that we all have a great deal to learn from that experience.

Breaking with the Cold War consensus[16]

Ben Lewis: I would like to preface my remarks with a quote that neatly sums up where we currently are in terms of the debate around the 1912 Prague conference, the 6th Conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party: “Prague party conference. Bolsheviks constitute themselves an independent Marxist party….The party strengthens itself by purging its ranks of opportunist elements — that is one of the maxims of the Bolshevik Party, which is a party of a new type fundamentally different from the social democratic parties of the Second International.”[17]

Stalin and Zinoviev

Many on today’s far Left share this view. Worryingly, however, the quote is from Joseph Stalin. Moreover, this is not the Stalin of 1912, when, like all other leading Bolsheviks, he vehemently denied that they were out to constitute themselves as a single party. No, it is Stalin from his Short course of 1938, a text in which he is quite patently rewriting and falsifying the history of the RSDLP for his own particular purposes. Of course, the reason Stalin has to reinvent party history is to justify his monolithic party regime: in 1912 the Bolsheviks created a party of one faction, i.e., a party of no factions at all. Further, Stalin argues that creating such a single-faction party had always been Lenin’s plan since the RSDLP’s 2nd Congress in 1903. While on occasion the Bolsheviks had sought rapprochement and even unity with the Mensheviks and others, essentially this was a kind of trick, a concealment of the Bolsheviks’ true aims and a way of influencing (duping?) the supporters of such groups—or at least that was what this version drives us to conclude. Never mind the fact that Lenin had a Menshevik chairing the Prague conference!

Lars Lih has also dug up an extremely revealing comment by Zinoviev a few years earlier. In 1933, looking back to 1912, Zinoviev wrote: “I don’t know why the records of the Prague conference have not yet been published. I think they’ve survived and, I’m pretty sure, in quite detailed form.”[18] (These comments were not published at the time.)

The records of the Prague conference of 1912 did not emerge until 1982, when the academic historian, Carter Elwood, discussed them in an article entitled “The art of calling a party conference.” Looking back, we can obviously answer Zinoviev’s question: Publishing the records would have completely undermined the Stalinist myth. And we all know what informed these attempts to reinvent Bolshevik history: Three years later Zinoviev was murdered in cold blood.

Interestingly, according to Lars Lih, Elwood’s 1982 analysis, as well as that of his recent book, The Non-Geometric Lenin, overlap with the Stalinist falsification thesis. Perhaps this should be of little surprise. For Elwood, after all, there are two kinds of Lenin: the human being who liked hiking through the mountains and enjoyed a glass of beer afterwards, and the geometric Lenin—that is to say, the cold, factional operator, the calculator and political manipulator. Thus, as is often the case with Lenin studies, a cozy consensus emerges between bourgeois academic historians and the far left: What Lars Lih has deemed the “academic” and “activist” interpretations of Lenin.

For academic historians, many of whom were nicely funded by the Hoover Institute for their troubles, this interpretation of events proves that Lenin was a liar and manipulator. For the Left—particularly the Stalinists—it proves that Lenin was an unrivalled leader and skilled “stick-bender,” as Tony Cliff might have put it. I think that recent scholarship, not just from Lars, but from others locating Lenin’s views in the context of Second International Marxism, is helping us to move beyond such a cultish Lenin. But, as I shall argue, I also think that the left has not quite taken on board some of the new insights and understandings. This is also true of 1912, although it would seem that the ball has started to roll.

Why does this matter?

Some might think that agonizing over the exact course of events at a conference that took place just over a century ago is of little relevance to the tasks of the Left today. Fiddling while Rome, or Athens, burns. But Marxism is, or should be, deeply historical. Getting out of the mess the far left is currently in, or at least thinking about how to get out of that mess, requires a rigorous interpretation of our own history—warts and all.

It is undoubtedly the case that we still live in the gloomy shadow of what passed itself off as "communism" and "socialism" in the 20th century. This is not only true of how the majority of people perceive our movement today, but also of our own ideas and alternatives. The 20th century saw an enormous defeat for the working class movement internationally, and this has manifested itself in a crisis of working class politics. We must confront this crisis openly, boldly, and honestly—the only way we can seek to rearticulate the political project of Marxism as a viable alternative to capitalist decline.

Yet some of the material that is being uncovered in the course of the discussion on 1912 is revealing. In many ways those of us who call ourselves “Bolsheviks,” “Leninists,” and “Trotskyists” do so on the basis of a cold war caricature, a Stalinoid misrepresentation of the organization that was able to lead the masses to power in 1917. Given the subordinate position of the working class in society, and the general confusion that surrounds us as a result of our defeats and setbacks, perhaps this is no surprise.

Yet such a conception of “Bolshevism” directly feeds into some of the real, concrete problems we face today, not least in the proliferation of competing sect regimes and outfits. Stalinists and Maoists, for example, can justify the existence of their monolithic organizations on the basis of Stalin’s arguments about 1903 and 1912. Similarly, many Trotskyist groups will deploy such arguments as a way of clamping down on public dissent and factionalizing—witness, for example, how comrades on the Left usually refer to internal discussion and debate. Apparently, most left groups have a very healthy internal regime. But how would anybody on the Left, let alone in the working class more generally, know unless they join?

The necessary concomitant of this form of so-called “Bolshevik” organization is splits, disillusionment, and fragmentation, not partyist unity. Moreover, the slight resurgence in anarcho-libertarian ideas recently can be partly explained by the existence of bureaucratic centralist regimes claiming the mantle of “Bolshevism.” If that is “Bolshevism,” so many anarchists reason, then we want nothing to do with it. Again, the result is further fragmentation and strategic disorientation/valorization of spontaneous struggle, as opposed to political strategy.

Basing ourselves on this kind of toy-town Bolshevism, the Left today is rendered near impotent in the face of enormous historical tasks and challenges. We cannot seriously unite anyone because we cannot unite ourselves. There are various forms of latent and actual resistance against the effects of the capitalist crisis, but at present we are collectively failing to offer anything viable, practical, or inspirational.

More fundamentally, the question of the party form, the kind of party regimes we fight for and organize around today, cannot be separated from the kind of society we are trying to build, the way we conceive working class rule. For us in the CPGB, revolution must be the conscious act of the majority of the population, aware of what they are doing, why they are doing it, and able to organize if that plan is not sufficiently being carried out or being undermined. The degeneration of the Bolshevik Party, along with the retreat and defeat of the Russian Revolution itself, underlines this basic point. In order to rule, the working class needs democracy at all levels of society. It certainly could not exercise political power through the kind of bureaucratic centralist regimes that are features of the Left and held up as “Bolshevism.” Hence the importance of this discussion: it is certainly not a “waste of ink.”

Moving forward

As I mentioned before, recent scholarship has taken some great strides in terms of understanding the history and evolution of Lenin and the Bolsheviks: firstly with 1903 and now with 1912. Many on the Left have quite rightly applauded the efforts of those like Lars Lih. But I think we have not taken on board what implications these insights have for our own practice. For example, when I watched the Socialist Workers Party’s John Molyneux debate Lars at Marxism back in 2008, I heard Molyneux say something along the lines of “This is a great book for students of Russian history who want to prove that Lenin does not lead to Stalin, but cannot quote a non-academic source like Tony Cliff.”[19]

But, while Molyneux may not think so, we are gradually beginning to understand the context of the emergence of Bolshevism—namely in the Second International—and we are beginning to see that Bolshevism was a mass phenomenon, aimed at merging the workers’ movement with a program for society as a whole, not just for issues directly affecting the working class. Fundamentally, this meant fighting for the “light and air” of political freedom, leading other classes to challenge for state power. The class unity required for such a momentous task was based around the acceptance of a Marxist program, not agreement. This was a crucial distinction, and informed the partyist democracy which the Bolsheviks upheld. Unity did not, as in many left groups today, revolve around philosophical or historical agreement, but political commitment: Unity in action and freedom of discussion.

This led to robust political debate and discussion both between the competing factions of the RSDLP and within the Bolshevik faction itself: Electoral tactics, the national question, the question of a second revolution in April 1917 etc., are all noteworthy examples. This conception of the party is often portrayed as one “of the whole class,” but this is just a tired repetition of arguments made back in 1977–78 by Joseph Seymour in his Lenin and the Vanguard Party. This view implies that anybody could be allowed into a revolutionary party, and that this was the major flaw of so-called “Second International Marxism.”

But this is simply untenable—it was the program that decided. For example, the Second International was formed on the basis that all those who rejected class political action, like the syndicalists, were automatically ruled out. Moreover, those who broke with the basic programmatic outlook of the Second International were expelled, e.g., the “governmental socialist,” Alexandre Millerand. The Bund was excluded from the RSDLP, etc. Membership of the party was not open to everyone. Nevertheless, it must be stressed that we wish to win as many to our banner as possible. But the problem is that it is simply impossible to unite millions in the kind of bureaucratic centralist organizations that characterize most left groups—where membership is often predicated on particular historical positions, like the class nature of the USSR, etc.

Although the dating and particular motives vary depending on the particular organization and dogma, most of today’s far left is convinced that Lenin and his comrades ultimately broke with the guiding programmatic and strategic pillars of the Second International. But—and it gets a little tiresome to repeat this—it was Kautsky and his supporters who broke with, reneged on, the outlook they had helped to shape (note the linguistic connection between “renegade” and “renege”).

I will finish with another Zinoviev quote which might help to clear things up for those who are still in doubt. The quote comes following the ignominious collapse of the Second International: “We are not renouncing the entire history of the Second International. We are not renouncing what was Marxist in it….In the last years of the Second International’s existence, the opportunists and the ‘center’ obtained a majority over the Marxists. But, in spite of everything, a revolutionary Marxist tendency always existed in the Second International. And we are not renouncing its legacy for one minute.”[20]

Nor should we. Moreover, we should note that the attempt to create a gulf between the Second International and the later “party of a new type” is something that sets in later, with the retreat of the Russian Revolution and the attendant problems—not exclusively, but primarily, with the Stalin school of falsification on party history. To the best of my knowledge, the concept of a “party of a new type” is not Lenin’s. Fundamentally, such a perspective bears the fingerprints of Stalin, as does the common interpretation of Prague 1912. If Stalinism was one of the key subjective obstacles to the formation of working class politics in the 20th century, then similar perspectives cannot exactly provide a strong starting point for working class politics in the 21st.


CC: Tom, it sounds like you are characterizing Binh’s criticism of Cliff as coming in some way from the right, so that Binh’s critique of Cliff is worse even than Cliff himself. Also, with respect to democratic centralism and the SWP/US as a model, could you get into some concrete examples of a healthy Marxist party with democratic centralism in the later history, after the Bolsheviks under Lenin?

Ben, could you address, and this relates to the substance of what Tom was raising, the difference between splits and purges? How might we think about splits in the history of Marxism in terms of transformation? Because some of your discussion had to do with problematizing characterizations of breaks, emphasizing lines of continuity, and it seems to me that we might think about transformation rather than breaks.

TR: I don’t know comrade Binh, but it does seem there’s a whiff of anti-Leninism in his critique, and his criticisms of Cliff are not very substantial. I’ve tried to suggest this with reference to his claims that 1903 is insignificant and his further claim that Lenin viewed it the same way. The very thing he cites as proof that it’s not important, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, is a text in which Lenin not only mentions 1903 but he says there that it prepared the way for the success of the October Revolution.

Do I think the comrade is somewhat to the right of Cliff? Well, if Cliff says that 1903, the initial break with the Mensheviks, is important and lays out at least some of the case for that, then certainly he’s correct. If Binh says it’s not important, it’s not so much right as uninformed, but it’s hard for me to know. Certainly Binh’s project, that the whole Left should get together and join #Occupy, to form one giant party, puts him a little bit to the right of comrade Lewis here, who presumably doesn’t want to include everyone in one group. D’Amato’s response to this, if you put Stalinists, social democrats, people who want to vote for the Democratic Party, and people who never want to vote for the Democratic Party, if you put them all in the same group you’re not going to have a very effective operational group. It’s an obvious point. I just think Comrade Binh lacks experience. Anyone who has been in a serious Left organization has heard from people, when they are out on the campus or at the factory, “All you small groups, you should all get together! Why aren’t you all together?” Comrade Lewis thinks this is a good criticism. We think there’s good reason why people aren’t together. There is a reason why Bob Avakian has not fused with Platypus.

I think it’s good what Lars Lih is doing. I have not read all of it, but certainly any investigation is good. It is quite possible that Carter Elwood has written a good book. I was unaware of it and I appreciate your bringing it up. There’s a lot of good bourgeois historiography. Leopold Haimson wrote a book in 1955 that was more or less commissioned by the American government so they could figure out what Bolshevism was in order to better combat it, still it is an excellent book. He of course concluded that 1903 had a certain significance!

As for the history of the SWP: There’s a French turn, and Cannon had fused with [A.J.] Muste, and they were going to make the turn towards the SP. Hugo Oehler, who was a very talented mass worker and a very important Cannonite cadre, one of their leading working class organizers, led a factional fight that led to a third or at least a quarter of the group splitting, arguing, in effect, that they should stay out of the SP just as Lenin broke with the 2nd International for good reason, they killed Luxemburg, etc. It is the same with the [Max] Shachtman split: Can the Soviet Union be defended -- is it not a degenerated workers’ state or not? The same thing with [Alex] Goldman and [Felix] Morrow in 1946 and with [Bert] Cochran and [George] Clarke in the early 1950s. Cannon, like Lenin, had a reputation for “door-slamming.” Lenin was not going to have his hands tied by the Mensheviks telling him what he could and couldn’t do.

Let me touch on a few points Comrade Lewis raised. On “the party of a new type:” The party that Lenin organized was different than the model of 2nd International. In the 2nd International the conception was “the party of the whole class.” Those elements of the working class which were not socialists or revolutionary on this view were holdovers, petty bourgeois fragments, people who had not been fully incorporated into the working class. That’s not true of the Leninst party. Lenin’s party-organizational conception, in its maturity, is premised on the notion that there’s a section of the class that is corrupted by imperialism and welded to the interests of the imperialists. That is the labor aristocracy, the agency of the capitalists in the workers movement. Lenin argued that you do not want those people in the party. You want the revolutionary elements, the revolutionary vanguard, which can then extend its influence over as many workers as possible. You do not want opportunists, social chauvinists, or social imperialists in the vanguard. That is a party of a new type and not a party of the whole class.

The Comintern, i.e., the international organization that is set up after the October Revolution to split the 2nd International and build revolutionary organizations all over the world, had an organizational model which is the organizational model I just described, not the organizational model Comrade Lewis describes. That was Bolshevik practice. They felt the best way for American Communists to organize themselves was not to put all of their differences out in the public so they could be ridiculed by the Chicago Tribune, Fox News, and any other backward elements in the working class, but rather they should dispute questions of revolutionary theory between themselves. So I have to say that Comrade Lewis is mistaken, a revisionist, because comrade Lewis insists that we have to support the likes of the Avakianites and I am saying we should not.

Finally, on 1912: In the year 1912 there are two organizations, two leaderships, two underground networks, two lines. That is, in effect, the point of no return for the RSDLP. Lenin makes an offer. He contacts every underground organization in Russia and invites them to the conference. At the time, there were some Menshevik underground organizations, though mostly the Mensheviks were doing legal, above-ground work. These latter Lenin called the liquidators and they were not invited. But there were Mensheviks invited and some of them came. This was Lenin’s attempt to reach out to the healthy elements of the Mensheviks and to separate them from the leadership. He was interested in the Mensheviks who were actually running the risks in the underground. Lenin thought, “They should be in our party. If they had a few deviationist ideas, we can work that out.” Lenin was quite happy to have a minority of people who didn’t necessarily agree on everything. What he didn’t want was to be in an organization where people wanted to have unity with the capitalists.

BL: A lot of this is just setting up a straw man. On “the party of the whole class:” The SPD was not the party of the whole class. That is Seymourism. That’s a standard misconception that goes back to Lenin and the Vanguard Party. What did the SPD do? It excluded syndicalists! The Second International was founded on the basis that the anarchists were excluded. It actually, at several points, debated with, and, indeed, threw people out of its ranks who broke the programmatic outlines that the International adopted. Millerand in 1898 becomes part of a French capitalist government, for which he is expelled. In the 1890s debates with the German (SPD) right, Kautsky puts forth motions to expel people like farmers, it’s not just everybody in the same class get them together in the party, it’s the program, it’s the acceptance of the program and its strategic vision. It’s not based on “Do you agree with the first four conferences of the Comintern, and that the Soviet Union is a degenerate workers state, and that Cannon was right against Shachtman?” No, it was a question of program in the here and now, one of programmatic political commitment. That’s what Lenin took from the SPD.

On “Left-Wing” Communism: The generation of the self-conception of Bolshevik organization actually sets in earlier and Lenin bears some responsibility for it. Still, “Left-Wing” Communism is the first time where Lenin says that the 1903 Bolshevik-Menshevik split was of fundamental significance. Pham Binh is right insofar as in none of his writings up until this point does Lenin talk about “the Bolshevik Party.” The only references in his Collected Works to “the Bolshevik Party” are actually inserted by the editors afterwards. We have to get our heads around that. So, in 1920 the Bolsheviks under the pressures of the Civil War and all that had happened, do have to change their organization, and to come up with a model that they did export. I did a book on German Social Democracy and the 21 conditions. The 21 conditions were basically, “Purge yourself of the opportunists and reformists and organize on that basis.” I defend those conditions under the circumstances they then faced. The problem we have is that is being generalized as a political method in order to combat opportunism and right-wing ideas. That is not going to get us anywhere.

What the Bolsheviks did and the SPD did not do (and this is why it is a different organization and why Kautsky failed), is that they did not openly attack the right. If you look at the mass strike discussion around 1906 you get the sense that the German center, the orthodox Marxist wing, were not willing to go and say, “Actually [Karl] Legien and the people he’s in deals with, they are bastards and they are going to sell you out.” With the Bolsheviks they did not insist on organizational separation, at least until later on. What they did was to have head-on ideological warfare, but that’s factional. Yes, there are Mensheviks and Bolsheviks with separate press, separate organizations, but those were factions. The Party we should be aiming for will bring together factions. It is not simply, “Let’s get together with Bob Avakian.” It’s on a higher and more fundamentally political level than that. To take the IBT: We have said to you on several occasions in Britain, “You should join us as a faction. You will have the right to change the leadership of the organization, change the politics of the organization, etc.” If we cannot get together and have out our political difference in this way, we are failing. We are miserably putting up with this stupid situation which is based on the notion that “We are pure and we must continue as an organization. The revolution will come and we will win.” It is nonsense. That’s the fundamental lesson that we should draw from history. Factions were a healthy part of the RSDLP. Open political struggle was part of it. That was why you had separate leaderships, separate finances, etc. They were factions.

On purges and splits, 1920 is an absolutely justified split, but there is also sometimes what Adorno called a “negative dialectics” in splits, in the sense that both sides come out worse. There is a difference between transformation and breaks. It is not that the Bolsheviks just did the same thing that they said in 1903. They actually added to their strategy. They took on board what had happened. But they did have a fundamental strategy, which was the merger of socialism and the workers movement, the minimum and maximum program, democratic revolution to the end, and mass party organization on all levels of society. That’s the ABC of Second International Marxism and that is what took the Russian working class to power in 1917. It was Bukharin the maximalist who was saying, let’s rubbish the minimum program now that we are in power and Lenin who says don’t be stupid, we need the minimum program because we might lose power.

On Leopold Haimson, I agree with you by the way, The Making of Three Russian Revolutionaries is one of the rich treasures in Cold War historiography. The problem I have—Lars Lih makes the point—is that when it comes to Lenin, all historiographical standards do not apply.


While the radical left are experts in putting out visionary programs, splitting, finding, and forging revolutionary leadership, the fact is that they are leading no one anywhere. Might one of the reasons for this be that even those orthodox defenders, against Stalin, have in fact adopted a rigid concept of Leninism, of what Lenin did? Is that a possibility?

BL: Broadly speaking, yes. I think even the most formally anti-Stalinist currents have sleepwalked into Stalinoid forms of organization.

Would you say that Binh’s article, what its failings, is right about Occupy? That the Left is unable to adequately account for the dynamism of Occupy mired as it is in its attempt forge revolutionary leadership.

BL: It is incumbent on the Left to get its act together and unite on a serious basis, not on a Stalinist or Avakian basis, but with a viable vision that we can take to Occupy and to the working class more generally. Lenin built a party out of the wreckage of all these local groups, some with crazy ideas, and forged them on a higher level. Now, Occupy might stay or go, but that is also our task.

Korsch draws out how Marxism itself is a phenomenon of the emergence of the proletariat, so in what relationship does something like an organized Marxist party stand to the working class? How can those historical disputes of the Second International actually have bearing for us?

TR: I think that it is quite possible if you are serious about wanting to be able to see a Left which is able to wield significant influence and actually able to combat austerity programs. What we need to do is to at least think our way through how we got into the situation we are in now. I think that Stalinism is an enormous part of that, and an aspect of Stalinism of course is Maoism. Earlier today, Mike Ely said that we should be in a different place than we are now. He said this speaking as someone my vintage, and I felt I knew what he meant.

Forty years ago, we had demonstrations of up to one million people that I attended against the war in Vietnam, and this was ongoing. Thousands, tens of thousands of young leftists went into factories to get in touch with workers, maybe a total of ten thousand in the United States and North America so that they can go and proselytize, in stupid sort of ways that didn’t have a big impact. But you know there was a real attempt to carry things out, and the New Left of course didn’t begin at this, it began as “oh, to hell with all this bullshit.” But, after a while and in many attempts and false starts, we collectively worked our way back around to realizing we actually we needed to take seriously this thing about organizing, we needed to be organized, we needed, probably, eventually many of us came to the conclusion, reluctantly, that we had to become Leninists again, and that we had to go to the working class. But, because of the configuration of world politics at that point it appeared that Mao was our leader. Mao told us to fight U.S. imperialism resolutely, smash revisionism. So everybody tried to carry out Mao’s dictums. Consider the example of the United Front against imperialism, which sought to find the progressive element of the U.S. ruling class, to unite against the imperialist element, and stated that “China’s line is our line.” That is where the Avakianites started. Eventually the Chinese said, “You know what, if you are truly loyal, truly loyal, you will dissolve your organizations and you will renounce communism.” Because they didn’t want an international “Maoism.” So most of the Maoist groups went out of business shortly thereafter. The Avakianites, to their credit, did not. So what does that tell us? What that tells us is that there was a large opportunity, potentially, in the 1960s and early 1970s that was squandered, because people didn’t actually work out the experience that had preceded them. I think we are in a similar situation now. Occupy is more primitive in many ways, but more sophisticated in some ways than the New Left was. I don’t think it’s likely—I certainly hope—that Occupy continues to ferment and do some exciting things. I think that lots of things are possible, but without understanding the past we will not conquer the future.

BL: I am going to start where you finished off. I made the point yesterday about the historical situation we currently find ourselves in and we certainly do live in the shadow, the negative legacy, of what went before. So my starting point in that sense is history: We have to look back to at what we built in order to rebuild. And that really pertains to your question, what does a partyist project, what relationship does it have to the here and now, to Occupy, to society more generally in this very difficult period? And I think the answer on one level is very simple and on the other level slightly more complex. The simple level is that we need to rebuild the working class movement at more or less from scratch. We can do that: We see that from the history, the positive impact that unity has had on the working class movement, the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920, a very small organization in relation to France, Germany, Italy, had a massive impact on class organization and the trade union struggle. In 1875, in Germany, they actually went out and built the trade unions from the organization that was formed. We also need to educate again, the level of Marxist education across the board at the moment is very, very low because it is not taken seriously. People in left-wing groups are treated as leaflet fodder. They are not taught to actually think and take seriously Marxist theory, to articulate their differences. I do think we need a cultural revolution on the Left. And with that, then you can actually seriously think about doing—at least coming to terms with—some of the enormous challenges that come our way.

One of the passages that I find interesting and thoughtful in Lenin and the Vanguard Party is where Seymour asks, “Why didn’t Marxists from the 1860s to the 1900s try to form parties of the Leninist type?” He gives an economist response and I wonder what you think the answer is to this puzzle. On the question of what changed circumstances meant for Lenin’s formulation, I wonder whether in fact Lenin’s position from 1903–1914 or 1917 really doesn’t represent an intermediate step, because he didn’t fully break with the left-wing of the Second International until World War I? Moreover should they have done so before the crisis of 1914? As an aside Ben, as I think about this, I obviously think that the CPGB as a project has much more in common with Platypus than the IBT.

BL: I disagree.

TR: 1860s–1910: That’s an interesting span to speculate about. There was a lot of experience that had to be achieved before certain things that we take for granted. There was, for instance, the experience of the Paris Commune, which was enormous, and changed Marx’s view of how socialist revolution would take place. Also, it maybe made it clear that there was real potential in a fairly immediate prospect, if things had been done right. On the other hand, everything was done wrong, for if there’s ever an argument for an organization that had an idea of what it was doing, it was the Paris Commune, which had really no Marxists participating in it. It was a mélange of left liberals, radicals, greens, and everything else.

BL: Greens?

TR: Well, the equivalent: Proudhonists. There was also the development of capitalism itself. In the 1860s we don’t have imperialism, in a sense there’s the British Empire and the colonies, but capitalist development is intersected by the Leninist organizational form in ways that was not applicable earlier.

What about Engels in the 1890s?

TR: Of course there is the First International that Marx participates in and the lesson there is that you cannot include everybody—the CPGB goes that far. I recognize that the 2nd International didn’t take absolutely everybody, but when Seymour says party of the whole class, the conception was that working class should have a party, and that there would be a workers party that would include the whole class. That was not Lenin’s conception! His conception is that there is a section of the working class that is bought off, corrupted, and the party should not attempt to include the whole class, it should be the organized revolutionary vanguard of the class putting the program first. First you define the program then you recruit to it. This is not applicable to very, very small groups that say, “we’re the party, join us.” There needs to be a political struggle for clarity. If you look at the development of Trotskyism in the United States, for example, you find that Musteites brought something that that the Cannonites previoulsy lacked. On 1903-1914, I think the short answer to that is that Lenin’s practice went beyond his theory, essentially. That’s often going to be the case when we encounter new phenomenon, new problems if we are able to grope our way towards a solution. Sometimes looking back on it you theorize it rather than look at a problem, come up with a correct answer and then implement that. You try to do that, but in the course of doing that you’re going to retrospectively check it back. That’s the whole point about 1912. What we’re saying, what Seymour says, and what most bourgeois historians, and everybody else says, is that after that there’s only a name in common. There are two separate organizations, there are two separate programs, at that point they are roughly similar sized, in the next two years the Bolsheviks were four times the size of the Mensheviks because they had a different orientation, not to act within the legal limits allowed by the tsar, but to act illegally and to go and make trouble for the tsar. It turned out that a lot of workers preferred that, so the Bolsheviks grew faster than the Mensheviks as a result.

BL: Seymour is consistent with the bourgeois scholarship, but Cliff’s discussion of 1903, as Lars [Lih] has shown in terms of What is to be Done?, is also taken from Menshevik or pro-bourgeois sources and that is not a crime. There are riches in bourgeois history. But I do think that we need to break with the caricature that’s being presented. For a lot on the Left and the Cold War warriors there is no doubt that Lenin was a manipulator. If that is the case, then “Sorry, Lenin, I’m not a leninist, you’re a liar and a manipulator.”

So what’s changed since 1860? You did get Marx and Engels sitting in Engels’s living room writing the Parti Ouvrier in 1878, minimum and maximum program, just for a Trotskyist current. They did contribute as much as possible to mass Marxist parties at that time. The SPD was obviously the breakthrough. Engels did his bit as well. I think one of the real seeds of fault in the SPD is that they actually did not take seriously the democratic republic as a form of working class rule. Engels takes that up in a very good text, the Critique of the Erfurt Program, in 1891. In that text, he says that this was a major flaw. We’ve got some wonderful demands, armed people, elected judges, but what does it all mean, what does it all culminate in? Lenin, in the 2nd Congress, to something Plekhanov said, said the SPD consciously adapted to opportunism from the start: They didn’t include the Dictatorship of the Proletariat/democratic republic in their demands.

On neo-Kautskyism: We have to locate the serious flaws in Kautskyism and how they are reflected in some ways in Lenin. Kautsky’s understanding of the state, and I’m doing a lot of work on that at the moment, is flawed in my humble opinion. So you say I have a neo-Kautskyan position on the party question, but I’d say I have a neo-Leninist position on the party question because that’s what Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks looked to. That was their model. There’s a lovely quote in 1912—again, for people in doubt about what Lenin’s aims were he’s talking about how to organize in the June 3rd (or July 3rd?) regime. He writes an article after Prague saying the model we should be looking to is how the SPD organized under the Bismarck anti-socialist laws. So even in 1912 he’s saying this is a model party, you know the red postal service, and all of that stuff.

I think the only way we can become mass is to break with the organizational, bureaucratic form, which is a mini-representation of the dictates of the labor bureaucracy, actually, that stifles open political debate and culture and forces comrades into fits. You join the Left, you have a disagreement, what are you going to do? Literally, how are you going to win the working class, the great unwashed masses that are corrupted by bourgeois? You have to split, and unless we can break with that, comrades—this is the fundamental point whether you agree with my particular take on Kautsky and all the rest of it, the fundamental point we organize in the most stupid, pathetic of fashions. We cannot unite ourselves, let alone the millions of people, the millions of people we need to win to our banner to change the world. Marx and Engels’s contribution to their understanding of socialism is the victory of democracy, the conscious act of the overwhelming majority. We’re not going to get anywhere near that if we continue to base ourselves on quite frankly fairy tale understandings of Bolshevism, which are tainted by the past. We need to break with that fundamentally and only then can we seriously think about—it’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be fun, particularly. I don’t think Iskra in the 1890s and early 1900s, particularly in illegality and under tsarist repression was particularly the easiest political climate to operate in, but they did it because they were serious politicians who wanted a political party. And I don’t think the Left is serious at the moment about a political party. It contents itself with being silly little groups that actually have very little influence on anything and the danger exists that we disappear up our own backsides, to use a lovely little English phrase, and simply become millenarian sect. Why are we here? I have put forward some explanation—I’m not saying I have the answers, but unless we break with the models we’ve inherited, which are anti-working class, which are forms of manifestation of the labor bureaucracies, we will not go anywhere. I think the fundamental thing that I’m doing with my research and political work is looking back to these things in order to move forward. Bolshevism is rich in history and has some wonderful lessons that we can draw on to move forward. Otherwise, I could join the IBT tomorrow, but I’d disagree with them on something.

TR: No, you couldn’t.

BL: Exactly. It’s frankly childish and not up to the task thrown our way today, in this period. |P

Transcribed by Brian C. Worley

[1]. Pham Binh’s articles are “Mangling the Party of Lenin,” Weekly Worker 899 (February 2, 2012), available online at: <>, and “Wanting to Get Lenin Wrong,” Weekly Worker 907 (March 29, 2012), available online at <>. A longer version of the latter, including its second half, on #Occupy, is titled, “Over a Cliff and into Occupy with Lenin,” and can be found online at: <>.

[2]. Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: “What is to be Done?” in Context (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008).

[3]. Lars T. Lih, Lenin (London: Reaktion Books, 2011).[[3]]

[4]. Originally published online at: <>.

[5]. James P. Cannon, “Again: On ‘Unity with the Shachtmanites’,” The Struggle for Socialism in the “American Century,” ed. Les Evans (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), 139.

[6]. Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1931 [1930]).  Available online at <>.

[7]. Tony Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg (London: Socialist Review Publishing Company 1969 [1959]). Available online at <>.

[8]. Binh, “Mangling the Party of Lenin.”

[9]. Vladimir Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder,” in Collected Works Vol. 31 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964 [1920]). Emphasis added. Available online at <>.

[10]. Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism.” Emphasis added.

[11]. Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism.” Emphasis added.

[12]. Tony Cliff, “Lenin 1893-1914: Building the Party, vol. 1,” (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002 [1975]), 62.

[13]. Bruce Landau, “Lenin and the Bolshevik Party: A Reply to Tony Cliff and the International Socialists,” Available online at <>.

[14]. Josesph Seymour, “Lenin and the Vanguard Party,” originally published in Workers Vanguard in 1978–1979, available online at <>.

[15]. Seymour, “Lenin and the Vanguard Party.”

[16]. Originally published in Weekly Worker 908 (April 5, 2012). Available online at: <>.

[17]. Joseph Stalin, Kratkii kurs, (1938). Emphasis added. Quoted in Lars T. Lih, The Non-Geometric Elwood (forthcoming). Available online at <>.

[18]. Grigory Zinoviev, Izvestiia TsK KPSS, No. 5 (1989), 196.

[19]. See Molyneux’s review of Lars T. Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be Done?’ In Context, available online at <>.

[20]. Quoted in J. Riddell, ed., Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International (New York: Pathfinder, 1984), 105.


A response to Richard Rubin

Grover Furr

Platypus Review 45 | April 2012


RICHARD RUBIN ARGUES that “the 1930s were a decade of defeat for the Left.” His essay, “1933,” in the Platypus Review issue on The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century,[1] is an idealist abstraction from real historical events, one founded on an uncritical acceptance of Trotsky as a significant historical thinker and actor and a corresponding Trotskyist caricature of the Soviet Union, Stalin, and Chinese Communism. Consequently, the real history of the Left in the 20th century is absent.


Painted in 1939 V.P. Efanov, 11 x 17 meters (sic) in size, it was titled "Notable People from the Land of the Soviets." It was displayed in the USSR pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. It was destroyed during World War II.

The 1930s were, in fact, a decade of historic advance in the USSR, China, and even in the USA. The forces for which the 1930s were a decade of defeat were mainstream bourgeois capitalism, social-democracy, and, of course, Trotskyism.

To say, as Rubin does, “The period 1933–1940 is the last attempt of classical Marxism to rearm itself against the double menace of Stalinism and fascism,” is an atrocious falsehood, a capitulation to the anti-Communist logic of Trotskyism—a logic recognized and embraced since the 1930s by overtly pro-capitalist anti-Communists, who regularly cite Trotskyite historians and their works as “respectable” secondary sources. Trotsky played a vital role in the Revolution of 1917 and an important role in the Russian Civil War, but not after that in the Comintern. Moreover, contra Rubin, Trotsky and Benjamin were not figures “of their time, but also out of their time, figures um neunzehnhundert,” rather these figures, whose deaths coincided in 1940, had no impact on world politics, the class struggle, or the future of the Communist Movement.

“Stalinism” as such never existed. It was simply an epithet that applied to the overwhelming majority of the international Communist Movement that rejected Trotsky and looked to the USSR and the Comintern for leadership in liberating the working class. Some small factions looked towards Trotsky, but these never amounted to anything. Tellingly, Rubin fails to consider what this insignificance implies about Trotsky or Trotskyism.

It was the USSR that “spoke to the utopian possibilities” of Communism. Between 1917 and 1960 the eyes of the world and the hopes of the working classes everywhere were on the USSR. Trotskyism was itself a “menace”—though on an incomparably smaller scale than Nazism.

In the grip of the Trotskyist myth Rubin says, “Trotsky understood Stalinism better [than the Stalinists].” It would be more accurate to say that, “Stalin understood Trotskyism better than the Trotskyists,” as anti-Communism can also assume a “left” disguise. A number of anti-Communist “historians,” such as Robert Conquest, Robert Service, Orlando Figes, Timothy Snyder, Oleg Khlevniuk, Robert Tucker, and Paul Gregory, to name just a few, embraced Trotsky or Trotskyists as allies. In the uniformly anti-Communist field of Soviet history, Trotskyist scholars and journals are respected, even honored.[2]

It is significant that Rubin effaces more recent research into Trotsky’s biography and activities during the 1930s, such as the following:

  • Trotsky’s “bloc” in 1932 and thereafter with the Rights, Zinoviev and Kamenev, and other clandestine oppositional factions, exactly as he was later charged in the Moscow Trials.[3]
  • Leon Sedov’s embrace of the tactic of assassination—in Russian, “terror.” Sedov, Trotsky’s son, was his father’s representative in continental Europe.[4]
  • Trotsky’s collaboration with Germany and Japan.[5]
  • Trotsky’s deliberate lies to his followers in his Bulletin of the Opposition and to the Dewey Commission hearings in 1936.[6]
  • His advocation of Ukrainian independence in May and July 1939 when—coincidentally?—the Nazis and the Polish government were planning to separate Ukraine from the USSR to create a fascist nationalist state.[7]
  • Schemes by both the Finns and the British in December 1939 to January 1940 to invade the USSR and install Trotsky in the “provisional government” to stimulate a civil war.[8]

Of these statements only Trotsky’s alleged collaboration with the Axis is at all controversial. The rest have long been known to serious students of Soviet history. Taken together, the works cited above by Broué, Rogovin, Getty, and Holmström demonstrate that Trotsky’s writings in the 1930s involved falsifications and deception. But who were these lies intended to deceive? His followers, who believed that Trotsky was telling the truth, for example, about the Moscow Trials, paid dearly with their lives in the USSR in 1937–38.

No doubt Rubin is unintentionally correct in saying “…the best Trotskyists would insist that, in over two-thirds of a century since Trotsky’s death, there has been hardly anything deserving the name of Marxist theory.” But then no one but Trotskyists would voice such nonsense.

The era after World War II became the greatest age of anti-imperialist victories in history, exceeding even the period of the American, French, and Haitian revolutions. But Rubin writes, “the real but belated possibility of revolutionary politics was defeated in the 1930s.” This nonsense reflects Trotsky’s economic determinist focus on the industrial West. Trotsky’s, and Rubin’s, theory cannot accommodate the real revolutions in China and Vietnam. The USSR did not decisively turn anti-revolutionary until Khrushchev embraced a demonized interpretation of Stalin that was not only similar to Trotsky’s views, but was in part borrowed from him. Blind to the successes of the Communist Movement after the 1930s, Rubin can see only failure. In reality, we need to learn from both failures and successes.

Few ideas in Marxist history have been so refuted by reality as the theory of “Permanent Revolution.” It amounted to an intelligent, though dogmatic, speculation when Trotsky originated it in the aftermath of 1905. Thereafter Trotsky wrote no more Marxist “theory” worthy of the name. Stalin and Mao certainly did, though of course it would be a serious error for Marxists to be uncritical of them, or of any aspect of the Communist legacy.

Neither Trotsky, who abandoned the working class masses, nor, obviously, the members of the Frankfurt School, who were completely isolated from political struggle, learned the main lesson: it is the working class, in their masses, that make history. Mao and the Chinese Communist Party certainly learned this. Trotsky, because he abandoned the working class masses just as they abandoned him, and the Frankfurt School, because they were completely isolated from political struggle, never understood this. Unlike many Communist leaders—Stalin is a good example—Trotsky was never an organizer of workers. Soviet scholar Robert McNeil noted long ago, “to Trotsky, intellectual capacity meant talent for theoretical treatises.”[9] Between 1905 and August 1917, when he accepted Lenin’s leadership, Trotsky was in political limbo. Once Lenin was gone Trotsky was again ineffectual.

But, for Rubin, Maoism is “a rebellion of sorts against Stalinism that was and is itself hyper-Stalinist.” He effaces the historic contributions of the Chinese Communist Party to the Communist Movement in the 20th century by reducing it to “Stalinism.” He follows Trotsky’s Manichaean view according to which everyone who did not agree with him, Trotsky, was a “Stalinist.”

Rubin admits that his vision “does not partake of Trotsky’s revolutionary optimism,” concluding “the optimism of classical Marxism was once historically justified, but now, alas, is not.” Why call this optimism “Trotsky’s”? Tens of millions of ordinary Communists the world over had such optimism!

In historical retrospect, Trotsky’s view of the inevitability of the “road from capitalism through socialism to Communism,” is more similar to that of Stalin and Mao than it is different from them. By embracing a Trotskyist paradigm of history and of the path to Communism, Rubin has uncritically adopted one version of the Leninist concept that differs in detail only, but not in essence, from that of Stalin and Mao, and—for that matter—with that of Marx and Lenin, too. That version is “socialism,” what Marx called the “lower stage of Communism.”

I suggest that this is the most serious theoretical failure not only of Trotskyism, but of all the Communist movements of the 20th century. Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Mao, and all those in their movements were convinced that socialism would be the first stage in the march towards Communism. It was a good guess. But we can now see that it was mistaken. As one saying, reportedly of Cuban origin, runs, “Socialism is the stage between capitalism and capitalism.” Socialism, that is, leads to the reversion to capitalism, despite the best intentions of the best Communists.

Rubin’s Trotskyism asks the reader to accept a myopic view of history. If, for example, the year 1933 “summons up two names,” these would be Hitler and Stalin, not Hitler and Roosevelt. Stalin, along with Lenin and Mao, are the great Communist leaders of the 20th century. By the 1930s Trotsky led clandestine groups within the USSR and a small dissident Communist faction outside it. After the early 1920s Trotsky was no “fiery revolutionary,” but an ineffectual political actor and writer. His attempts at Marxist theory were undermined by his growing obsession with Stalin, who had bested him in the leadership contests of the 1920s. Frustrated, Trotsky came to adopt the anti-Marxist “great man” theory of history, with himself as the “great leader” and Stalin as the “great villain.” It is historically ironic that this stance was essentially no different from the anti-Marxist “cult of personality” around Stalin, which Stalin opposed, though not strongly enough.[10]

In the “Critique of the Gotha Program” Marx outlined a trajectory, one that Lenin adopted, of passing through a “first phase” or “lower stage of Communism,” a.k.a. socialism (ersten Phase der kommunistschen Gesellschaft), which preserves “bourgeois right,” to a “higher stage” (höheren Phase).[11] Stalin and Mao did not “betray” this vision, as Trotsky believed—they achieved it. This path to Communism failed.

Trotsky believed socialism could succeed, though under conditions—advanced industrial capitalism—that did not prevail everywhere. He asserted that the revolution could only be finally successful if one or more industrially advanced capitalist countries also experienced a revolution. Yet, first Stalin, and then Mao, showed that socialism could be attained in one country, through the combination of industrialization, collectivization, and mechanization of agriculture, even if that country had a predominantly agricultural, peasant economy. This, together with their recognition of the primacy of ideology over economic development in the modern world, was Stalin’s and Mao’s contribution to Marxism.

Yet it turns out that socialism does not lead to Communism. Instead it leads back to capitalism. And Communism, that utopian vision, is what the world’s working class needs today as it always has. Marxists—we ourselves and others—must devise a new roadmap of how to create a Communist society once the revolution to overthrow capitalism has been victorious.

We can only do that through joining mass practice with theoretical work informed by an understanding of the history of the Communist Movement of the 20th century. To that end we must abandon the comforting delusion that the problem of how to build Communism has already been solved, whether by Trotsky, by Mao, by Lenin, or by Marx. Today this is the “tradition” that “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” |P

[1]. Richard Rubin, “1933,” Platypus Review 17 (November 2009). Available online at </2009/11/18/the-decline-of-the-left-in-the-20th-century-1933/>. Also see “The Legacy of Trotskyism” in Platypus Review 38 (August 2011), available online at </2011/08/05/the-legacy-of-trotskyism-2/>.

[2]. See Bernhard Bayerlein’s encomium on Broué on the latter’s death: “Pierre Broué (1926–2005),” Jahrbuch für historische Kommunismusforschung, 2006, 461–63. Bayerlein is a leading German anti-Communist, scholar-propagandist, and falsifier. Broué worked closely with Bayerlein on several research projects. Trotskyist historical journals published by major academic publishers include Revolutionary History and Critique.

[3]. Pierre Broué, “Trotsky et le bloc des oppositions de 1932,” Cahiers Leon Trotsky 5 (1980) 5–37; J. Arch Getty, “Trotsky in Exile: The Founding of the Fourth International,” Soviet Studies 38 No. 1 (January 1986).

[4]. John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, Deadly Illusions (New York: Crown, 1993), 283; Dmitry Volkogonov, Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary (New York: The Free Press, 1996), 378–79; Pierre Broué, Léon Sedov: Fils de Trotsky, Victime de Staline (Paris: Editions Ouvrières, 1993), 210–11; Grover Furr, “Evidence of Leon Trotsky’s Collaboration with Germany and Japan,” Cultural Logic (2009): 162–63.

[5]. Furr, “Evidence.”

[6]. Getty, Trotsky in Exile; Sven-Eric Holmström, "New Evidence Concerning the 'Hotel Bristol Question' in the First Moscow Trial of 1936," Cultural Logic (2008).

[7]. Trotsky, “Problem of the Ukraine,” Socialist Appeal (May 9, 1939); Trotsky, “The Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads” (July 30, 1939) in Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939–40 (New York, 1977) 44–54.

[8]. Talvisota. Kronikka. (Gummerus: Jyväskylä, Helsinki, 1989), 45 and 46; O.V. Vishlev, “Operatsiia Utka,” Nakanune 22 iunia 1941 goda (Moscow: Nauka, 2001), 131–32.

[9]. Robert McNeil, “Trotsky’s Interpretation of Stalin,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 5 (1961): 89.

[10]. See Grover Furr, Khrushchev Lied: The Evidence That Every “Revelation” of Stalin’s (and Beria’s) Crimes in Nikita Khrushchev’s Infamous “Secret Speech” to the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on February 25, 1956, is Provably False (Kettering, OH: Erythrós Press & Media LLC, 2011), 7–11 and 223–37.

[11]. Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program” is available online, along with supplemental texts, at <>.


Bryan Palmer, Jason Wright, Mike Macnair, Richard Rubin

Platypus Review 38 | August 2011

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]

One of the plenary sessions held at the third annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, hosted by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago between April 29–May 1, 2011, set about exploring the legacy of Trotsky’s Marxism. Speakers Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Bryan Palmer of Trent University, Richard Rubin of Platypus, and Jason Wright of the International Bolshevik Tendency were asked to consider: “What is the relevance of Trotskyism for the Left today? On the one hand, there is a simple answer: The mantle of Trotskyism is claimed by many of today’s most prominent and numerous leftist parties in America and Europe (and beyond). The International Socialist Organization in America, the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, and the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in France all have their origins in Trotskyism. Evidently, the collapse of Stalinism in 1989 left Trotskyism’s bona fides, as anti-Stalinist Marxism, intact. On the other hand, Trotskyism has been infamously associated on the Left with sectarianism. Certainly, the ISO, SWP and NPA long ago made their peace in crucial ways with the politics of the post-Marxist New Left — a revisionism that their sectarian brethren (for instance, Trotskyism’s bête noire, the Spartacist League) have proudly and doggedly opposed. However, despite their differences, all varieties of Trotskyism today evince the conditions of the New Left’s ‘return to Marxism’ in the 1970s, for which the legacy of Trotsky provided one significant vehicle (the other being Maoism). For instance Trotsky’s biographer, Isaac Deutscher, strongly influenced the journal New Left Review. And yet there is something peculiar about this legacy. As one Platypus writer has suggested, Trotsky is as out of place in the post-World War II world as Voltaire or Rousseau would have been in the world after the French Revolution. Trotsky, unlike Trotskyism, exemplifies the classical Marxism of the early 20th century, and that tradition certainly died with him. Thus, before we can understand how Trotskyism’s legacy has influenced the Marxism of our time, we must first answer the question: What has Trotskyism made of Trotsky’s Marxism?” A full audio recording of the event is available by clicking the above link..


Opening remarks

Bryan Palmer: “A specter is haunting Europe,” wrote Marx and Engels in 1848, “the specter of Communism.” We live in a different epoch. Communism haunts little in our world. Platypus captures something of our dilemma with its proclamation, “The Left is dead; Long live the Left.” I take this to mean that the defeats of the Left in the 20th century have resulted in the demise of the forces of the revolutionary left, inhibiting our ability to recognize possibility. To transcend this limitation, which threatens to preclude the self-realization of humanity, the Left must live again. “Long live the Left,” then, is not merely a hope. Rather, it is a necessity, and not only for those who advocate this, but for all people.


The specter of communism, the specter of the Left, does not haunt today’s powers. Our specters are different: the capitalist crisis, on the one hand, and Stalinism, on the other. One threatens intensified exploitation, deteriorating standards of life, increased oppression, greater environmental despoliation, and imperialist war and carnage, while the other has soured peoples’ understanding of socialism. These dual specters have produced the dialectical dilemma of our times. Never has socialism been more necessary, more obviously the solution to capitalism’s quickening pace of crisis, and yet never has socialism, since its inception in the aftermath of the bourgeois revolutions of the late 18th century, seemed so unattainable. The Left seems dead, even as it holds the key to humanity’s emancipation and survival.

It is against this backdrop, at once pessimistic and optimistic, that the legacy of Trotsky’s Marxism must be assessed. Platypus presumes that the legacy of Trotsky’s Marxism can best be evaluated by exchanging the much-cherished memory of Trotsky as the anti-Stalinist martyr for the more painful image of Trotsky as the last man standing among the ruins of revolutionary Marxism. I cherish nothing about martyrdom, but view Trotsky’s assassination in light of Stalinism’s legacy: the degeneration of the fundamental revolutionary program of proletarian internationalism into the politics of “socialism in one country”, a profound shift that turned revolutionary possibility into its opposite and signaled the defeat of the world-historical accomplishment of 1917 while obliterating all protagonists of that original revolutionary victory.

The history of socialism in one country has been a profound failure regardless of the form it takes (Maoism, Guevarism, etc.). Thus I reject the notion of Trotsky as the last man, alone among the ruins of revolutionary Marxism. Revolutionary Marxism is not in ruins. It remains a profoundly rich legacy of insight and guidance, a way of thinking and acting in the world that is capable of explaining not only the rise and fall of capitalism, but also the rise and fall of what we have come to know as “actually existing 20th century socialism.” Revolutionary Marxism, far from being in ruins, is reaffirmed in its understanding of capitalist crisis, which unfolds on a daily basis. It is a considerable irony that even as bourgeois economists and organs of the bourgeois media confirmed Marxist insight at the height of the 2007–2008 mortgage meltdown, there were and are ostensible leftists proclaiming Marxism’s death.

The crises, in short, will continue as long as capitalism does. Marxism tells us this, and Trotsky’s legacy builds on Marxism’s historical development. More than an analysis of capitalism, Marxism pledges a way out of the recurring crises of capitalism. Trotsky, standing on the shoulders of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, theorized “the Revolution betrayed” and built an alternative to the Stalinist Communist International. Like his predecessors, Trotsky is alive, pregnant with possibility, and is the best guide revolutionaries have regarding what is to be done in an age overripe with capitalist decay and burdened by Stalinist degeneration. To the question of whether or not Trotsky’s Marxism continues to matter and whether revolutionary consciousness is possible in the current conjuncture, my answer is a resounding “Yes!”

One decisive component of Trotsky’s contribution, an extension of the thought and practice of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, is the importance of the subjective component within the objective circumstances. As a revolutionary Marxist response to Stalinism, Trotsky is the continuity, in different conditions, of the accumulated gains of Marxism-Leninism in the era of revolutionary degeneration. Trotskyism necessarily underscores that in a period when capitalism is overripe for revolutionary overthrow, the crisis of humanity is indeed the crisis of revolutionary leadership. This simple maxim, so curtly dismissed by all of those ostensible Marxists for whom now is never the time to struggle, never the time to build a disciplined, revolutionary working class party, never the time to call for capital’s defeat, is central to grasping what the revolutionary left has failed to do in the current hour of need.

James P. Cannon, founder of American Trotskyism, is one of the most significant figures in the history of the United States labor and left milieus. Cannon was forced to take principled stands, often against his personal inclinations, that left him marginalized, isolated, seemingly a “last man” among the ruins of revolutionary Marxism. Yet his history shows that, like Trotsky, he never was the last man standing; his worldview, his continuity with revolutionary Marxism, cannot be described as ruins. However marginal Cannon and his small army of Trotskyists were in the United States of 1929, 1934, or 1943, their capacity to chart a path mattered. From no more than five or six steeled proletarian Trotskyists in the coal yards of Minneapolis in 1932, for instance, emerged organizing drives among Teamsters that culminated in 7,000 truckers, helpers, warehousemen, and others flocking to the union banner in 1934. This, in turn, led to the Minneapolis General Strike, which saw workers refuse to be beaten into submission by the police and the vigilante forces of capitalism, and which turned Minneapolis into a union town, overturning more than a decade of the dominance of the open shop, scabs, stool pigeons, and the politics of subordination. Finally, it was this General Strike, among other such developments across the country, that spearheaded the drive to industrial unionism leading to the CIO breakthroughs of the Flint sit-downs and the great post-World War II strikes that brought black workers and immigrants into American trade unions in unprecedented numbers in the 1940s.

Our situation today is objectively better than the circumstances in which revolutionaries in the United States commenced their efforts to form a Communist Party in 1919. Our situation is objectively better, too, than the circumstances in which Cannon and his allies struggled to form a Trotskyist Left Opposition against both capitalist ascendance and a Stalinist stranglehold over the Left in 1929, or in which Vincent Dunne and Carl Skoglund, the two key Trotskyists in the Minneapolis trucking sector, started their organizing in 1931.

Yet we are subjectively impoverished. It is not a problem of the will to fight, evident in so many ways in the recent sporadic upheavals in the United States and Canada, and epitomized by the grass-roots rebellion in Wisconsin. Rather, the problem is a lack of leadership. The failure of the so-called Wisconsin idea to resist established power does not lie merely in the fact that objective conditions are arrayed against it. Indeed, perhaps the most critical component of the failure lay in the illusions leftists held about the Democratic Party and the barriers erected in the movement’s path by an ossified labor bureaucracy.

What led to this crisis of leadership? The answer is complex, just as the failure of the intellectuals in our time is legion. They have proclaimed themselves progressives, even revolutionaries, while they embrace every atavistic and puerile pseudo-intellectual turn imaginable, so long as their fresh and new ideas repudiate the fundamentals of Marxism and Trotskyism, the inevitability of capitalism’s decay and the necessity of hastening its demise with alternative structures of working-class power. At the very point that capitalism was extending its reach into global dominance, progressive intellectuals reached for theoretical refinements that denied the salience of economic relations, class struggle, and all explanations that could allow one to see the crisis of capitalism and its resolution in its wholeness, its totality. Instead, many progressive intellectuals became submerged in the postmodern moment, out of which they have yet to rear their befuddled heads. Meanwhile, their befuddlement has weakened a generation of potentially revolutionary thinkers.

Such a trend, itself embedded in Stalinism and the contradictions of capitalism’s late 20th century developments, has broken revolutionary continuity, the only guide in the midst of disjuncture and change. Those who advocate aestheticizing Marxism reify innovation and endlessly fetishize revisionism in order to be clever. There is a sense that the past must always be dead and buried, and if it is not disposed of, something must be done decisively to dispense with this past. I sense a little of this in the rather assured notion of Platypus that Trotsky is as out of place in the post-World War II world as Voltaire or Rousseau would have been in the world after the French Revolution. Traditions die, of course, and things change: 2011 is not 1917, which was not 1848. That said, there are important, venerable truths that need to be recognized, addressed, and acted upon.

As the irrationalist kernel of postmodernism bloomed into a thousand weeds of obfuscation, Marxists had to return to the claims of reason associated with Voltaire, Rousseau, and the Enlightenment. These thinkers were not dispensed with, because they are the best of the class forces they spoke for. Diderot’s statement that humanity will never be free until the last monarch is strangled with the entrails of the last priest is as true today as when it was uttered on the eve of the French Revolution. Marxism assimilates the best thought of the highest stages of cultures that may not be entirely in support of working class revolution and proletarian internationalism. It does not forget the accomplishments of the past civilizations it struggles constantly to transcend. This is one way in which it differs profoundly from so much of the current intellectual pretense.

We know this because we know the specters that haunt us now: capitalist crises and Stalinism. Confronting these specters necessitates addressing the specter of communism that, at one and the same time, has, in recent history, been in retreat, but which nevertheless poses the only decisive alternative to both of these components of our contemporary malaise. The specter of communism, first identified as such by Marx and Engels in 1848 and sustained through periodic uprisings of the insurgent working class in 1871 and 1917, can only be reborn in our time through recourse to the legacy of Leon Trotsky, who speaks for Marxism’s rebirth in the era of Stalinist degeneration. Trotskyism is the historical continuity of Marxism and Leninism. This legacy, of course, harbors some miscues, some faltering steps, and many pretenders who have abused its venerable truths. But this legacy lives in the necessities of our time. The question, “What has Trotskyism made of Trotsky’s Marxism?” can only be answered decisively when Trotsky’s Marxism is actually built into what it was always advocating: a revolutionary party of proletarian internationalism, capable of not only challenging capitalism, but defeating it.

Jason Wright: Looking back on the early years of the Communist Party, James P. Cannon, the “Old Man” of American Trotskyism, observed:

On the basis of a long historical experience, it can be written down as a law that revolutionary cadres, who revolt against their social environment and organize parties to lead a revolution, can—if the revolution is too long delayed—themselves degenerate…. But the same historical experience also shows that there are exceptions to this law too. The exceptions are the Marxists who remain Marxists, the revolutionists who remain faithful to the banner…. The ideas of Marxism, which create revolutionary parties, are stronger than the parties they create, and never fail to survive the fall. They never fail to find representatives in the old organizations to lead the work of reconstruction.

These are the continuators of the tradition, the defenders of the orthodox doctrine.[1]

Trotskyism continued and developed Leninism through political combat with Stalinist revisionism, just as Leninism preserved the revolutionary core of Marxism in struggle against the social-imperialist lackeys of the Second International. In a poem written in 1935, Victor Serge described the heroic figures of the past as a “Constellation of Dead Brothers,” stars in the sky at the midnight of the century, by which revolutionaries could steer a “course…set on hope.”[2]

The Second International’s conception of a “party of the whole class” produced Eduard Bernstein’s passive incrementalism and, ultimately, the shameful vote for war credits on August 4, 1914. Lenin’s break with these social imperialists marked the rebirth of genuine Marxism on the international level, just as the Left Opposition’s critique of “socialism in one country” kept the flame of revolutionary socialism burning after the Communist International was destroyed by Stalinism in the late 1920s. This produced a cadre that eventually came to view “unity” with the Democratic Party of racism and imperialist war as their main aspiration. Even the reformists of the Second International circa 1914 condemned electoral support of “progressive” capitalist politicians. Today “unity” is common practice for almost all Stalinist and ex-Stalinist formations, including Comrade Macnair’s CPGB, which prides itself on putting “tactical flexibility” above socialist principle.

In the 1950s, one of the leading figures of the international Trotskyist movement, Michel Pablo, following the lead of Isaac Deutscher, abandoned the struggle to forge independent Leninist parties on the grounds that a “New World Reality” had imparted a “revolutionary dynamic” to historical developments. “Pabloism” is a form of objectivism, assigning the tasks of revolutionaries to a disembodied “unfolding historical process.” What social-democratic reformism, Stalinism, and Pabloism all have in common is a tendency to negate the importance of the subjective factor in history and deny the indispensable and central role of a politically conscious and active working class in socialist revolutionary transformation.

American Trotskyism began in 1928 when the degenerating Communist Party expelled those cadres who refused to denounce Lenin’s partner—Trotsky—in the October Revolution of 1917. Cannon characterized his group’s first five years as the “dog days” of the movement. But in 1934 the tiny Communist League of America led one of the three successful general strikes that launched a gigantic wave of class struggle that ultimately established industrial unionism across North America. Each of these mass strikes was led by “reds”—the Communist Party in San Francisco, A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party in Toledo, and the Trotskyists in Minneapolis.

After fusing with Muste’s group the Trotskyists managed their way into the Socialist Party that brought hundreds of new recruits to their movement. On New Years Day in 1938 the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was launched in anticipation of the founding of the Fourth International later that year. The main document of the Fourth International—the Transitional Program—is among the most important, least appreciated, and least understood documents in the history of the Marxist movement. It distills the lessons of October 1917—the only successful workers’ revolution in history. It outlines the struggle to mobilize the proletariat for the seizure of state power from fights for minimal reforms up to the creation of armed workers’ defense guards and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie.

In 1998, the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) produced an annotated version of the Transitional Program to mark the 60th anniversary of its original publication. In our introduction we observed, “The centrality of the subjective factor in the struggle for socialism (i.e., a disciplined political vanguard of the proletariat) lies at the heart of Trotskyism.”[3] Much has changed since 1938, but one thing that has not changed is that the future of humanity hinges on the creation of an internationalist revolutionary leadership for the working class and oppressed. In recent months events in both Egypt and Wisconsin have provided negative confirmation of this proposition. In both cases the skillful intervention of revolutionary parties rooted in the working class could have had immense impact on the consciousness of the newly politicized layers of the population and pushed the struggle far beyond what was achieved.

The decline of the ostensibly revolutionary left in the U.S. in the face of the rabidly anti-communist capitalist ideological offensive of the 1950s was to an extent offset by the rise of the New Left and the various movements of the oppressed, namely black struggles for social equality, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement. The failure of the “Old Left”— the Communist Party and the degenerated SWP—to exert much influence on the New Left does not reflect the irrelevance of Marxism, but rather the distance that separates these revisionists from the revolutionary Marxism they professed.

Enormous social pressure and the political isolation of American leftists in the 1950s had sapped the revolutionary capacity of the SWP’s aging cadres. By the early 1960s, Cannon’s party succumbed to the same revisionist objectivism they had previously criticized Pablo for, as they hailed both Castro’s petty-bourgeois guerrillaism and the liberal pacifism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

If all those who identified with the Fourth International had embraced positions like the SWP, it would indeed have meant the movement Trotsky created was dead. But within the SWP, revolutionary elements organized themselves as the Revolutionary Tendency (RT) and declared war on the revisionist rot eating away at the SWP. A 1963 RT document entitled “For Black Trotskyism” identified the connection between tailing the Castroites and political adaptation to the bourgeois liberal leadership of the Civil Rights movement:

In their 1961 Cuban question documents, the Majority made it clear that for them the Cuban Revolution and, by implication, in the Colonial Revolution as well, the revolutionary working class party is, prior to the revolution, a dispensable convenience…. By their extension of this line to include the Negro question in the U.S., the SWP Majority has made the most serious overt denial yet of a revolutionary perspective. What they have done is to a priori exclude themselves from struggling for the leadership of a most crucial section of the American working class.[4]

The RT put forth a program of “revolutionary integrationism” first developed by Richard Fraser, an SWP cadre who pointed out that American blacks do not constitute a separate nation, but rather a specially oppressed color caste forcibly segregated at the bottom of the working class.

In November 1963, a few months after expelling the Revolutionary Tendency, the SWP leadership sent groveling condolences to Jacqueline Kennedy on the occasion of the assassination of the chieftain of U.S. imperialism. This act spoke volumes about the distance that then separated the SWP from its Trotskyist past.

The core cadre of the RT went on to found the Spartacist League (SL), which has since degenerated. But in the 1960s and 1970s the SL not only defended the authentic political legacy of Leon Trotsky, but also made important extensions to it, including identifying Cuba as a deformed workers’ state qualitatively similar to Mao’s China or Tito’s Yugoslavia. The revolutionary SL also argued for a class struggle perspective for black and women’s liberation in opposition to the cross-class ideologies of Black Nationalism and feminism then popular in the New Left. The SL was also known for upholding the rights of lesbians, gays, and other sexual minorities, and explaining the connection between coercive state regulation of consensual sexual activity and the bourgeoisie’s reliance on the nuclear family.

The SL was also distinguished by its refusal to give any electoral support to bourgeois or petty-bourgeois formations—including popular fronts like Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular in Chile. The Spartacists’ forthright defense of the Soviet Union, China, and the other deformed workers’ states against both imperialism and internal counterrevolution contrasted with that of the SWP and most of the rest of the self-proclaimed “Trotskyists” who embraced both Lech Walesa’s counterrevolutionary Solidarnosc, and the CIA-funded Afghan Mujahideen, forefather of today’s Taliban and al Qaeda.

One of the most important contributions of the Spartacist League was the creation of trade-union caucuses based on the Transitional Program as vehicles for developing revolutionary consciousness within the working class. SL supporters in the unions rejected the apolitical “rank and file” economism common to most of their competitors and instead waged a political struggle to win the most advanced workers to a revolutionary program. In a few important unions, such as the Communications Workers of America, National Maritime Union, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, SL-supported caucuses gradually won recognition as the leading opposition to the union bureaucracy.

This work was abandoned by the SL as it degenerated in the 1980s, but the work continued in the ILWU by friends and supporters of the International Bolshevik Tendency. In 1984 an International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) supporter Howard Keylor initiated an 11-day boycott of a ship in San Francisco carrying South African cargo. This “illegal” action, the first political strike by American workers in decades, established a precedent for a series of similar labor actions, including one-day shutdowns of all West Coast ports in April 1999 in solidarity with Mumia Abu-Jamal, and a similar coast-wide action on May Day, 2008, to oppose the war in Iraq. These exemplary actions, which offer a glimpse of the power of a class-conscious workers’ movement in the future, also demonstrate the potential for revolutionary work in the unions.

Steadfast opposition to the imperialist predations of one’s “own” rulers, and the defense of any indigenous resistance to such attacks, offer a litmus test for Marxists. This policy, elaborated by Trotsky in response to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, is part of the living legacy of Bolshevism. A critical moment in the SL’s degeneration came in 1983 when it responded to the bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon with a call for saving the survivors. To the SL’s social-patriotic demand, “Marines Out of Lebanon, Now, Alive!” we counterposed, “Imperialists Out of Lebanon—By Any Means Necessary!”[5]

The SL’s position on Lebanon in 1983, and its celebration of U.S. military intervention in Haiti last year (which was shamefacedly repudiated after a few months) contrasts sharply with its denunciation of Platypus founder Chris Cutrone’s 2004 assertion that “the position of military support for any ‘resistance,’ despite the political nature of such military opposition, against imperialist power…is not applicable to the present situation in Iraq.” The SL correctly responded: “Insofar as the forces on the ground in Iraq aim their fire against the imperialist occupiers and their lackeys, we call for their military defense against U.S. imperialism. Every blow struck against the imperialist occupiers is a blow struck against the enemy of workers and the oppressed all over the world.”[6] However, apparently in the interest of maintaining the prestige of their leadership, the Robertsonian SL chose not to apply the same criterion to Lebanon.

Most of the key programmatic questions confronting Marxists today have been addressed in one form or another by revolutionaries in the past and their experience can provide valuable guidance. As regards Iraq, those who reject Trotsky’s policy in favor of one of social-democratic neutrality, on the grounds that the Islamists are just too reactionary, in effect align themselves with the “critical” apologists for American imperialism. Not a good place for revolutionaries to be.

There is no question that the influence of revolutionary ideas in the American workers’ movement is today at a low ebb. But the only way to change this is by taking up the weapons available in the arsenal of Marxism. There is no halfway house between reform and revolution, and no possibility of the victory of socialist revolution without first forging a revolutionary leadership in and of the working class. To do so, in our view, it is necessary to learn from and critically evaluate the best revolutionary traditions of those who preceded us—not to set about reinventing the wheel. This is why we named our journal 1917.

In 1937 Trotsky observed:

Reactionary epochs like ours not only disintegrate and weaken the working class and isolate its vanguard but also lower the general ideological level of the movement and throw political thinking back to stages long since passed through. In these conditions the task of the vanguard is, above all, not to let itself be carried along by the backward flow: it must swim against the current. If an unfavorable relation of forces prevents it from holding political positions it has won, it must at least retain its ideological positions, because in them is expressed the dearly paid experience of the past. Fools will consider this policy “sectarian.” Actually it is the only means of preparing for a new tremendous surge forward with the coming historical tide.[7]

Mike Macnair: I will also talk about continuity, though in a slightly different way. Inevitably, one has to interrogate the question one is given. I will start with a couple of trivia. I don’t think there is anything wrong with martyrdom, in the sense that it goes with the territory. If you actually fight, there are going to be martyrs. Even in trade union struggles, as often as not, a scab will run down some poor picketer. Trotsky is that on a large scale. Second, it is quite wrong to suppose that the Spartacist League was unaffected by the New Left. In reality, the SL was far closer to the New Left in its party conception than the SWP, until Barnes took over and the SWP became a sort of Guevarist organization.

Now, the more fundamental points. First, what is Trotskyism? Trotskyism is the name we give to an organized movement that is founded on a certain explicit political platform. This platform consists of the theses, resolutions, and manifestos of the first four congresses of the Comintern, and the theses, resolutions, and manifestos of the International Left Opposition in 1931–1933, of the International Communist League in 1934–1938, and of the Fourth International as founded in 1938, as well at its emergency congress in 1940. After that, of course, people can still call themselves Trotskyists and reject everything which came afterwards in terms of the history of that organized movement. Ted Grant, for instance, said that the re-formation of the Fourth International in 1946 was fraudulent. Lutte Ouvrière in France have essentially the same line. On the other hand, then, there are many tendencies that take their history from groups which split to form a coalition of nationalists—the International Committee of the Fourth International in 1953. And there is a whole history of splintering since then.

I have said before there are 57 varieties of the far left. Certainly, Trotskyism has an inordinate history of splitting—splitting in an unprincipled manner, splitting prematurely, splitting in a pre-congress situation in order to deny legitimacy to the congress, and so on. So Trotskyism, however splintered, is an actual, existing, live political movement. It is not some hypothetical reconstruction of the political implications of Trotsky’s theoretical work.

In the introduction to this panel, Trotsky was said to be the last survivor of “classical Marxism.” In my opinion, the concept of “classical Marxism” is severely problematic. I am almost willing to say that “classical Marxism” is an amalgam in the same fashion as the “Bukharinite-Trotskyite-fascist counterrevolutionary front.” The concept of classical Marxism takes a set of Marxists who had opposed political positions on a whole range of questions and forms them into this entity, “classical Marxism.” I don’t know where it came from; I think it was the Socialist Workers Party of the U.K., for whom it provided a cover for their eclectic adoption of Marx, but not Engels, plus Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, the early Lukács, and Gramsci—but only the Gramsci of L’Ordine Nuovo, or at best Quintin Hoare’s extraordinarily contorted interpretations of Gramsci’s already contorted Prison Notebooks.

On the other hand, the Northite author Emanuele Saccarelli has quite correctly demonstrated that Gramsci was on the Stalin side of the Stalin-Trotsky divide in the Comintern in the late 1920s. To say that Trotsky is the last survivor of “classical Marxism,” or that he stands amid the ruins of “classical Marxism,” is to say that he stands in the ruins of something that never existed, that he stands in the ruins of a castle in the clouds.

In order to understand these various authors it is necessary to interrogate the Marxisms of the Second International, and the Marxisms which in that period were outside the Second International, like Georges Sorel’s version of Marxism, and the Marxisms of the Russian revolutionary movement—not just Bolshevism, but also Vperyodism and Bogdanovism, with its influence on military opposition, and on Stalinism. It is also necessary to pay serious attention to Ryazanov’s politics and not just his stature as a famous historian, and to take Parvus seriously in spite of the fact that he turned into a class traitor.

It is also necessary to actually read Kautsky. People represent me as wanting to revive Kautsky—I do not want to revive Kautsky, but a part of Kautsky, namely the serious, long-term attention he paid to the idea that before you get to the point of being able to pose the question of power, you have to build up a movement in non-revolutionary times. I do not in the least wish to revive Kautsky’s idiot anglophilia, his belief that Britain was not an imperialist country, his belief that imperialism was simply a product of the ascendancy of the aristocracy and bureaucracy in Germany and France. I do not wish to revive Kautsky’s belief in the separation of powers as a normal feature of modern society that has to be maintained, or that the society of the future will be divided into nation-states. Nonetheless, it is impossible to understand Lenin without understanding Kautsky. It is also impossible to understand anything that Trotsky wrote after 1917 without understanding what Lenin had to say about the party.

These are preliminary points; my substantive points are three. First, there is not as large a gap between Trotsky’s writings during the high period of the Comintern and post-war Trotskyism as is commonly believed. It really is the case that the movement which Trotsky set out to build was the movement which attempted to reconstruct itself, with weaknesses and problems, after World War II.

My second point follows from this: It is necessary to critique Trotskyism. What we have is this wilderness of competing sects, none of which can speak to the masses, for whom the state of division on the revolutionary left looks a bit like the Monty Python joke in Life of Brian about the “Judean People’s Front” and the “People’s Front of Judea.” Moreover, the critique of Trotskyism has to be based not in theory but in concrete, voted-on, programmatic, organizational positions. On that basis, if we actually asked where sectarianism comes from, it is clearly not something that is peculiar to Trotskyism. The particular form of sectarianism that characterizes Trotskyism also characterizes anti-revisionist communism, including all forms of Maoism and Stalinist politics. I believe the Stalin Society in England, for instance, has broken into three divergent groups.

This fissile character of the revolutionary left has its roots, it seems to me, in the Comintern, and specifically in the Comintern’s formal decisions. First, there is the Comintern’s justification of the split in the Second International, that it had to happen because by splitting they would purify the movement. But this had already been disproved when Stalin and Kamenev entered into negotiations with the Mensheviks in the spring of 1917 and when Zinoviev and Kamenev denounced the October Revolution in the bourgeois press in October 1917. The bourgeoisie will find people to do its work even in the most acutely split revolutionary organizations.

Then there is the Comintern’s Theses on the Role of the Communist Party 1920–1921,[8] which suggests that the Party will avoid the opportunism that paralyzed the Second International through a system of bureaucratic control. It preserves the central committee members’ right of veto by a system of purging the organization of accidental and non-proletarian members. The Communist parties under this Bolshevized regime descended into corruption and control by the bourgeoisie far more rapidly than Social Democracy under the democratic, loose regime given to it by Marx, Engels, and Wilhelm Liebknecht. After these decisions of the Comintern, the space no longer existed to do what Lenin did in the spring of 1917 and fight against the central committee through the public press. The form of bureaucratic centralism that won out in the Comintern is more appropriate to corruption by the bourgeoisie than the forms of organization that existed before 1918.

Of course, these speculations assume a mass party. Today, the method of bureaucratic centralism, when applied to a small group, means that any serious difference inevitably leads to a split, irrespective of the depth or permanence of the difference. Thus, every Trotskyist organization is necessarily violently fissile.

In spite of what I have just said, it is important in terms of reconstructing the Left today that we understand there is not a Trotskyist “original sin” that somehow invalidates the experience of Trotskyism since World War II. There are things that a small revolutionary movement can learn from its experiences. Admittedly, most of these are negative lessons. They deserve recognition and study, nonetheless.

Richard Rubin: To address the question of the legacy of Trotskyism at a Platypus convention, one must steer between Scylla and Charybdis. Two opposed dangers confront one: to reduce Trotskyism and its history to merely the further elaboration of the history of “the dead Left,” or to collapse Platypus itself into a continuation of Trotskyism, as a sort of “neo-Trotskyism.” Both tendencies clearly exist within Platypus. The description of this panel, which asks what “Trotskyism [has] made of Trotsky’s Marxism,” exhibits the first tendency. The implication is, unfortunately, that Trotskyism is merely a caricature of Trotsky, who is assumed to be a great Marxist, “the last man standing of the Second International radicals.” The Trotskyists tend to be dismissed as mere epigones, a view that one must admit is sometimes implicit in the self-conception of Trotskyists themselves. This esteem for Trotsky but dismissal of Trotsky-ism is, I will argue, erroneous.

The question I wish to raise is how one can take seriously the history of Trotskyism, even assert its centrality to the history of the 20th century Left, without being a Trotskyist. To understand this possibility, which in fact lies at the heart of the Platypus project, I must raise an important distinction between “revolutionary continuity” and “historical memory.” Platypus, unlike actual Trotskyists, does not believe that “revolutionary continuity” is possible now. On the contrary, it is premised as a project on the notion of a fundamental dis-continuity in politics, “the death of the Left.” We understand ourselves as the result of this profound revolutionary discontinuity and see our main task as the understanding and amplification of that discontinuity, in the hope of making it recognizable as a problem.

For this task, the history of Trotskyism, or rather its failure, is not a marginal subplot, as might appear to be the case given the ineffectiveness of Trotskyism as actual politics, but lies at the center of the story. It is what did not happen, and why, that matters to us. Trotskyism is the most important thing that “did not happen” for most of the 20th century. It is the ghost of that ever-deferred revolution that haunts us. (Zizek refers somewhere to Trotskyists as the Hölderlins of the Left.)

This view of Trotskyism is, of course, in direct contradiction with Trotskyism’s view of itself. Thus in an article by Jason Wright, published in Platypus Review 35, the assertion is made that “Trotsky’s policy was always to put program first.”[9] While this is an accurate description of a political tradition for which I have deep respect, it is one from which Platypus represents a fundamental break. I shall not, therefore, be addressing the question, “What is to be done?” but rather, “How did we get here?” Ultimately, indeed, the point is to change the world, and in this Platypus completely agrees with a classical Marxist tradition, but for us the intellectual tools to change the world no longer lie as immediately at hand as they once did for our predecessors.

“Trotskyism” as a political tradition no doubt has an indefinite shelf life. A generation from now, “Trotskyists” may still be insisting on the “centrality of a program”—but a generation from now, the British monarchy may well exist, too. Just as the British monarchy no longer means what it once did, “Trotskyism,” despite outward continuity, has also undergone an essential transformation. It is not at all clear that “the defense of the North Korean deformed workers state” in 2011 means the same thing as defense of the Soviet Union did in 1939—or even the defense of North Korea in 1950—even though the logic that led to one might seem to be the same as the logic that leads to the other. To continue the analogy: The abolition of the British monarchy in the 21st century would no longer have the significance that its abolition in the 17th century did. These questions within the political tradition of Trotskyism are difficult to pose. Indeed, from a classical Trotskyist perspective, what Platypus most esteems in Trotskyism is perverse—not its self-proclaimed, unyielding, revolutionary militance, but rather its role as critic of the Left, from the left.

Trotskyism was born as a response to a twofold historical catastrophe, Stalinism and Nazism. The heroic—one might say the deeply ethical—character of Trotskyism stems from its refusal to accept the necessity of accommodation to defeat. If many a mid-century intellectual responded to Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the Gulag with Petronius Arbiter’s reflection, “si recte calculum ponas, ubique naufragium est [if you rightly cast the reckoning, shipwreck is everywhere],” Trotskyism presented itself as a raft. Still imbued with a rational 19th century optimism and an Enlightenment faith in humanity and the working class, it insisted on the accidental character of the 20th century. An emphasis on the accidental character of an entire historical epoch, though, sits uneasily with Marxist materialism. It raises difficult questions about the role of ideas and intellectuals in history, particularly the role of Marxist intellectuals in the development of Marxism. As such, a reflection on Trotskyism is also necessarily a broader reflection on both the necessity and limitations of Marxism as an approach to history.

For a representative of an avowedly Marxist organization, to emphasize the limitations of Marxism may seem odd, but Platypus is not interested in promoting a sterile orthodoxy. I, for one, would not be offended if someone were to apply to me or to Platypus the label Worker’s Vanguard once applied to Joseph Hansen: “honest revisionist.” Marxism is necessary for us, because in the last two hundred years no better way of thinking about human beings and the alienated social world they have made has been developed. To give up on Marxism is to give up on making sense of history. Marxism may not, however, be fully adequate to the task. It may be merely an approximation. In particular, Marxism may not be able to give a fully adequate account of its own history. Thus, for example, the notion that Marxism is simply the intellectual expression of the class struggle generated by capitalism or that political struggles within the Marxist movement are the reflections of class struggles within the party is, I think, a completely inadequate notion. While I would, for example, agree with the position of Cannon and Trotsky against Shachtman, I do not think that the positions of the latter were a manifestation of some “petty bourgeois” character. This is bad sociology and even worse intellectual history. The 20th century has been a confusing time to be a socialist. Often fundamental values such as socialism and democracy have seemed to be—and, indeed, perhaps have been—counterposed. We need to acknowledge this openly and understand the fractured and tragic history of Marxism as resulting from fractures within Marxism, and not simply as deviations from Marxism. In this view the split, for example, between Shachtman and Cannon is not merely the falling off from Marxism of the former but an expression of the disintegration of Marxism itself. Such disintegration may force choices on us, and though some of those choices may be better than others, the fact of the necessity of a choice remains tragic.

I mentioned earlier that Trotskyism was born of defeat, specifically the triumph of Stalinism and Nazism. Trotsky saw these two catastrophes as intertwined, since Stalinist misleadership certainly paved the way for the German catastrophe, but also because both Stalinism and Nazism were the result of the failed German revolution. Hitler and Stalin were the product of a world in which Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Lenin, and ultimately Trotsky himself failed. But this raises a deeper problem, for there are two distinct types of “failure” here. One might call one the “German question” and the other the “Russian question.” The first question is how it is that the strongest Marxist party in the world could betray its own revolution. The second is how a revolution based on profoundly democratic and emancipatory impulses could lead to a totalitarian nightmare.

The 20th century has provided us with several examples, beginning with the Bolshevik revolution, of the successful abolition of capitalist social relations in significant chunks of the planet, but none of them has come up even to the standards of bourgeois democracy in terms of political freedom, and the human price of the successful abolition of capitalist social relations has often been horrific—in some cases, such as the Khmer Rouge or North Korea, so much so that it is hard to see any progressive value at all in it. On the other hand, quite the opposite of what Marx envisioned, there has never been a successful revolution abolishing capitalist social relations in any advanced capitalist country. Indeed, it is precisely in those countries where the working class wields the greatest potential power that the prospect seems most distant, although since this certainly cannot be a result of objective conditions, one must attribute it to the power of that mysterious force, bourgeois ideology.

Trotsky, Trotskyists, and non-Trotskyist Marxists have certainly tried to grapple with these problems. But instead of recapitulating their answers, let me rather outline what I see as the history of the Left in the 20th century, from a Platypus perspective, and the role of Trotskyism in this story—not because Trotskyism provides the answers, but rather because it directs us to the most difficult and essential questions. Although the heroic period of the Left is certainly the early 20th century, particularly the late teens and early 1920s, I will focus on a later period. The central period in this narrative is the mid 20th century, from 1933 to 1968. Two further periods, one from 1968 to 1989 and one from 1989 to the present might also be distinguished, but I will address these later.

If World War I marked a fundamental divide in the history of the Left, World War II did also, but in quite a different way. The First World War led to a radicalization that profoundly threatened the capitalist world order, while the Second World War had much more ambiguous effects. On the one hand, fascism, the most brutal form of bourgeois class rule, was defeated, but on the other, both bourgeois democracy and Stalinism emerged strengthened. As such, the Allied victory in the Second World War was both a victory for the Enlightenment, of which both bourgeois democracy and Stalinism were ambivalent and degenerate representatives, and at the same time a defeat of revolutionary possibility. The Second World War did not, as Trotsky had anticipated, throw both the advanced capitalist world and Stalinism into profound crisis. Instead, it led into a new era in which the former was stabilized and the latter expanded. Both of these threw Trotskyism into a series of theoretical crises, or in some cases a simple denial of reality to mask a sense of theoretical inadequacy.

If the post-war world has witnessed massively attenuated inter-imperialist competition, marked by the hegemony of a single imperialist power—the United States—which took upon itself the role of organizer of global capitalism, it has also witnessed decolonization. The end of formal European empires triggered no radical upheavals in the metropoles and, while radical nationalist verbiage was common, in retrospect it must be admitted that the effect of decolonization has been conservative over the last half century. Free of direct colonial rule, capitalist exploitation of what is now called the Third World with the assistance of local brown- and black-skinned elites is more rampant than ever. At the beginning of the process, however, it seemed quite different to many people, and Trotskyists as much as Maoists would turn out to be prone to illusions about Third World nationalism, so that a political tradition originally based on socialist internationalism and the rejection of “socialism in one country” prostituted itself before any number of nationalisms.

Furthermore, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, developments in both the advanced capitalist world where Trotskyism was concentrated and also in the Stalinist world would prove confusing. After the initial dramatic expansion of Stalinism in the aftermath of the Second World War, Stalinism would after 1956 begin to liberalize somewhat and become multi-polar. Stalinism was no longer a single, exceptional historical experience growing out of the tragic degeneration of a world-historical revolution, but seemed rather a family of political types. In the advanced capitalist world, when the Left began to revive in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it did so via a “New Left” that wanted to bypass the supposedly sterile political debates of the 1930s. As the Sixties heated up, the Great Dionysian moment of 1968 seemed to promise, to many otherwise sane leftists, a Revolution by Pure Ecstasy, a notion that, despite decades of disabuse by Freud’s Reality Principle, is still with us.

By 1968 Trotskyism had for the most part simply become a variety of New Leftism with Trotskyist characteristics. In many cases whether someone became a Trotskyist or a Maoist was probably a matter of accident. What had disappeared, though, was Trotskyism’s role as critic of the Left. To the extent that this role was maintained, and I am thinking particularly of the honorable exception of the Spartacist League, it led almost necessarily to a political style that seemed hyper-sectarian. Furthermore, as the period following 1968 saw a steady decline of the Left on a worldwide scale and, a couple of decades later, witnessed the peaceful disintegration of Stalinism, even the sense of belonging to a potentially revolutionary moment was lost. Nowadays, to all but the cognoscenti, the differences between, say, the ISO and the WWP as descendants of “Trotskyism,” and the RCP as a descendant of Stalinism, must seem rather arcane. The proliferation of “parties” therefore appears as merely a psychological pathology of the Left, rather than a reflection of a significant history that has become multiply obscured.

Finally, let me say something about 1989. I was a young college student in the period 1989–1991, which proved to be an illuminating moment for me: It was, in fact, the moment I became convinced that Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism was fundamentally correct. I am still astonished that so few other people recognized this. This period was, however, a negative illumination, for if it justified Trotsky via a somewhat long historical detour, it was self-evidently a defeat. Nowhere did the working class rise to the defense of collectivized property and, in one country, Poland, a mass movement with a working class base was mobilized against the Stalinist bureaucracy. The ambivalent aspect of this restoration of capitalism is, of course, that in most cases it was accompanied by an expansion of political liberties, which, ironically, actually makes possible the advocacy of Trotskyist politics that was impossible for decades under Stalinism. The disappearance of Stalinism as an active political movement has had a paradoxical effect on Trotskyism, since one can no longer distinguish oneself by anti-Stalinism, which is all but universal on the Left, even among former Stalinists. But at the same time, Stalinist attitudes persist on the Left, even in an “anti-Stalinist” guise.

What then remains of Trotskyism, if not as a possible political practice, at least as a core historical memory? The short answer, I think, goes directly to the possibility of saving the memory of the Bolshevik revolution. Only Trotskyism provides an intellectually honest tradition on the Left through which one can redeem the Bolshevik revolution from both Stalinism and Social Democracy. The alternative is to dismiss the Bolshevik revolution as a gigantic mistake. As the Bolshevik revolution recedes and its hegemony over discourse on the Left disappears, the tendency is indeed to dismiss its continuing relevance.

The issue is no longer one of defending the Soviet Union, but rather of understanding its memory. The Bolshevik revolution is the great trauma of Marxism. On the one hand, it is the moment at which Marxism became a world-historical force and the hitherto merely theoretical possibility of the abolition of capitalism was raised to the level of actual possibility. But in another sense, it also represented a loss of innocence for Marxism, as Marxists for the first time were confronted with the reality of wielding state power. Of all the various Marxist traditions that have grappled with that experience, Trotskyism represents most fully—even if still inadequately—the consciousness of the ambivalence of that memory as both an emancipatory moment and subsequent defeat.

This is why Trotskyism matters to Platypus.


BP: Mike Macnair presented Trotskyism in terms of sectarianism, but his formulation seems extreme considering how, in Marxism, splits have always been inevitable among revolutionaries, and they have been handled in quite different ways. In Stalinist organizations splits were handled by terror—hardly preferable to Trotskyist sectarianism. In Social Democracy, from the moment that it abandoned the revolutionary project but continued its claim to be part of the Left, splits have been handled with acute repression. In this regard, the Labour Party in the U.K. and the New Democratic Party come to mind.

Trotskyism has distinguished itself in this respect. I would cite Cannon and the SWP in the 1940 split with Shachtman, during which Trotsky urged Cannon to use this as a vehicle for education, for development of cadres. Cannon’s personal inclination was for a full split, but he decided to debate Shachtman thoroughly, even though he felt he was crawling through the mud in doing so. I think the question of splits has to be posed in a more holistic manner than simply seeing it as a “Trotskyist problem.” The problem can be traced all the way back to Marx in the 19th century.

Richard, you said you were not interested in the question of what is to be done, but the question, “How did we get here?” To me, those questions seem inextricably linked; I’m not convinced they can be asked separately.

MM: The historical record strongly suggests that it is possible to get from grouplets to large parties by way of unification. Now, if the result is based on wholly unprincipled politics, then it will explode. The Rifondazione Communista in Italy, for instance, after an anti-revisionist split from the CPI (Communist Party of Italy), opened its doors to the Trotskyists and Maoists. It rapidly grew from small groups to a party of 100,000 with significant electoral representation and a real dynamic of creating a movement. Then, of course, it blows up over—God help us—the same bloody question of “defeatism” and “imperialism,” the 1940 question. Another classic example of failed unification is the Scottish Socialist Party, a fusion of microscopic Trotskyist groups that became a relatively large organization. It blew apart over bureaucratic centralism, albeit in a particular way: They were hiding the fact that their leader Tommy Sheridan was going to sex clubs, because it was inconsistent with their sex-negative, anti-prostitution line. It blew up in their faces as soon as the Murdoch press got to know about it, which turned into a complete catastrophe.

Nonetheless, the Gotha fusion enabled the mass Social-Democratic Party, and the fusion of 1903 enabled the RSDLP (Russian Social Democratic Labor Party). In spite of the fact that they split into public factions at that very conference, the continued common identification with a single party enabled that party to grow to mass support in 1912–1914. And so on.

RR: It is true that there are Trotskyist parties that seemed to acquire a semi-mass character. You have the example of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, etc. But in all those cases the problem is that what you actually have are parties that, whatever their label, function as social-democratic parties.

I believe that, given the present low state of the Left, in a debate between a neo-Kautskyan perspective and a Trotskyist perspective, both are doomed to be “sectarian.” But, if there were a revival of the Left on a significant scale, I actually think the predominate conception, given the history we have been through, would be some sort of neo-Kautskyan position, and this would not necessarily be good, because it would essentially recapitulate a failed history. If you are saying that the most one can expect under present conditions is left social democracy, that may be true, but then one should put it that way, rather than saying that left social democracy would be some sort of revolutionary movement.

MM: As far as the current, practical political line of the bulk of Trotskyists—and I honorably exempt the Spartacists and the IBT—Bernstein looks massively to their left. Today, Bernstein would be to the left of the British SWP, judged by their current line.

JW: Comrade Macnair has been making me dizzy today. I heard that Trotsky came over to Lenin’s position on the party question in 1917, and I agree, but I don’t know how that reconciles with the idea that the Bolshevik-Menshevik split of 1903 is a product of Stalinist falsification.

MM: No, I argued that the claim that it was more than a factional split is a product of the Stalin school of falsification.

JW: But you also argued that incremental electoralism, Bernsteinism, the idea of the “party of the whole class,” was not susceptible to bourgeois influences. What do you think Lenin meant when he spoke of the “labor lieutenants of capital?”

MM: I did not claim that the German Social Democratic Party, or the Second International in general, was impervious to bourgeois influences. My point was that Stalinism proved more susceptible to bourgeois influences than the earlier form of organization.

JW: I simply don’t think that’s true. The degeneration of the Soviet Union happened under incredible international pressures, due to the isolation of an incredibly backward agricultural economy and the incredibly low level of the peasantry. Then there is the Civil War, the imperialists attacking and trying to strangle the Revolution—these conditions ultimately allow Stalinism to conquer, even though it does not conquer unopposed.

Speaking of sectarianism, Rosa Luxemburg was often dismissed as a “sectarian,” as well. But the tragedy of Luxemburg, what made her “sectarian” in a certain sense, is that she was not convinced of Lenin’s position earlier than she was. There were objective conditions against her as well, but the fact that she came over so late to Lenin’s conception was the root of her tragedy.

I also want to address Platypus. The history of Marxism is a tragedy. The whole history of the Left is a tragedy in some sense. It is a huge tragedy that Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals fails. It’s a tragedy that the Paris Commune is drowned in blood. It’s a tragedy that we end up with the Stalin turn. I agree with Bryan: You cannot separate the question, “How did we get here?” from the question, “What is to be done?” We have to remember that the reason that there are people dying in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria right now is because of the class society that we live in—because of capitalism. There are people starving all around the world. Workers are dying in factories. I think that’s where you start. Once you philosophically divorce Marxism it from the practical, programmatic aspect, I think you lose sight of that. What was consistent about Cannon, and one of the things I admire him for, is that revolution remained on the agenda for him in 1953. And if you are not starting from the point that revolution is on the agenda, then what is the fucking point?

RR: I want to make two points. I’m not trying to sidestep “what is to be done?” as a problem—of course I recognize that it is an essential question. I don’t really know what is to be done, whereas I have a better sense of how we got here. There are people who know exactly what is to be done; if they are convinced that joining the International Bolshevik Tendency is the answer, they join the IBT.

Second, there was something I wanted to clear up. I was the person in Platypus who said Trotsky was out of place in the post-war world, but I feel the use of that statement in the introduction and description of this panel to be misleading. I said this originally in the context of a talk at the Left Forum about Trotsky and Walter Benjamin, in which I drew the analogy about Voltaire and Rousseau and the French Revolution. Voltaire and Rousseau both died in 1778, 11 years before the French Revolution, yet clearly the French Revolution is, in a profound way, the heir of both their ideas, and this would have been obvious at the time. I wasn’t attempting to claim that Trotsky is somehow irrelevant to the post-war world. Rather, I meant to say that when one thinks of Trotsky and his political experience, it is embedded in that interwar period, the period from the 1920s to his assassination in 1940.

Q & A

There is a lineage of the modern right, specifically neoconservatism, that has its roots in Trotskyism. What is it about Trotskyism and the sort of questions it poses that its ex-followers end up as central figures in both the far left and the far right? Is there something about Trotskyism that made that phenomenon possible?

RR: At one point in the 1990s I was working as a cameraman for a friend who was a founding member of the Socialist Workers Party, and of the Communist League of America, David Weiss. David was making a movie about Trotsky’s life, and he interviewed Al Glotzer, who had been Trotsky’s bodyguard. Glotzer spoke quite glowingly about Trotsky, yet Glotzer had become, along with Shachtman, basically a neoconservative in his politics. At some point the Cannon-Shachtman split came up in the interview and, suddenly, it was as though it were 1939 all over again. So this is an interesting question, as it points to or suggests something like a latent character of Trotskyism.

There’s a movie called Arguing the World about four Jewish ex-Trotskyists, the most right-wing of whom was Irving Kristol, the most left-wing was Irving Howe. The movie shows the arc of their rightward trajectory. One of the things they talk about is how there were two bays at City College: one for Stalinists and one for Trotskyists. What you clearly sense is that the Trotskyist bay is characterized by a culture of freedom of discussion.

One thing that’s always fascinated me is that Maoists, when they abandon Maoism, almost always seem to become plain-old liberals. Trotskyists are more likely to become cranky neoconservatives. I rather respect that about Trotskyists. While I don’t want to defend neoconservatism, I think this tendency represents the disgust with the dishonesty and philistinism of much of the Left. I think you can see that in someone like Christopher Hitchens. One thing about Trotskyism that I did not specifically emphasize, because it is not directly political, is the “non-philistine” character of Trotskyism, compared to what I would call a Stalinist tradition of philistinism. That’s something people on the Left also have to think about: the culture of intellectual debate, and what kind of social milieu is being generated by a certain style of politics. Even though the neoconservatives don’t actually represent a continuation of Trotskyism in a political sense, there is a way in which they do represent a continuation of a certain style of involved debate and culture.

MM: I think this tendency you have pointed to is simply a peculiarity of American politics. I don’t know what caused it, but it isn’t what happens to ex-Trots in Europe. Overwhelmingly, they either become Stalinists, or they become social democrats. Some of this depends on which is the mass party. If the Communist Party is large they tend to gravitate toward Stalinists. The people who have tended to become rightists are ex-Eurocommunists. So, to me, this Trotskyist-turned-neocon thing just seems to be something about the dynamics of American politics that does not apply outside North America.

In 1976, Argentina suffered a devastating military coup that killed 30,000 people and forced hundreds of thousands into exile, but by 1982, the working class organized a general strike against the dictatorship. When the dictatorship invaded the Falkland Islands, much of the Left sided with the dictatorship when the British military subsequently attacked. Are you saying that just because the military action against a dictator is imperialist, revolutionary morality charges the Left with siding with a dictatorship?

JW: We were dual defeatist!

MM: I agree that dual defeatism was the right response to the South Atlantic War, although at the time I was persuaded by the position that Comrade Wright introduced in his principled speech, that the question was one of fighting on the colonized country as opposed to the imperialist country. Supporting the military victory of the colonized country was a touchstone of revolutionary morality. I don’t actually think that anymore.

There is a clear example that Trotsky gave. In the case of Ethiopia, the Trotskyists in Britain initially came to the right answer, which was that Haile Selassie was a British client, and that it was an inter-imperialist proxy war between Britain and Italy, and therefore dual defeatism was the correct position. Trotsky said, no, the victory for Haile Selassie would be an advance for the revolution. I think that was a mistake.

Jason, how does a blow to U.S. imperialism today lead to more possibilities for revolution in the U.S. and abroad? In what sense, in the history of Trotskyism, have you seen a blow to U.S. imperialism leading to more revolutionary possibilities?

JW: Vietnam—the U.S. defeat in Vietnam had reverberations that propelled the New Left: strikes, activity in the workers’ movement, and radicalization. This was energized by the Civil Rights Movement too, of course, but also by the fact that the U.S. was losing the Vietnam War. Maoism, for example, started to look sexy when the Viet Cong were fighting the U.S. to a standstill.

MM: I am a little skeptical of that, for two reasons. There’s an overlap between the rise of Civil Rights and the rise of wildcat strikes in the states in the early 1960s—but it wasn’t obvious that the U.S. was losing the Vietnam War until at least the Tet Offensive in 1968, and probably not until later. So it seems to me that the war provided an opportunity for the Left to reach out to wider, extra-Left forces because of the political illegitimacy of the war. It posed an opportunity to undermine and attack the coherence of the American armed forces. But if you think about when Vietnam was actually won and the tanks rolled into Saigon in 1975, that’s actually the trigger for the break-up of the New Communist Movement, the moment at which the New Left loses its élan.

RR: I also think there are two separate questions that are being conflated. First, there is the question of the empirical probability of a defeated U.S. imperialism leading directly to a revolutionary situation, which I think is highly unlikely. Second, there is the sense that it is one’s revolutionary duty to advocate for the defeat of U.S. imperialism no matter what. I think that these two questions are separate, because there might be a difference between “revolutionary morality” and one’s self-perception as a revolutionary. I think that positions advocating the defeat of U.S. imperialism are more about maintaining people’s own sense of themselves as revolutionaries than the likelihood of an actual empirical prediction. I don’t think that they actually believe that the defeat of U.S. imperialism is on the agenda simply because the latest war venture is not going well.

The possibility of revolution is immanent in capitalist society, in the sense that the objective conditions for socialism are more than overripe in a place like the United States. So, really, the obstacles are in people’s heads, and the question of whether those obstacles can ever be overcome is a very difficult one to answer. But the obstacles to revolution don’t have to do with the development of the productive forces. The tragedy of the absence of left politics in the U.S., or Europe—and, really, the decay of left politics worldwide over the past thirty or forty years—is completely different from the problem posed by Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals in France in the 1790s, when, really, I do not think the objective conditions existed.

BP: I tend to agree more with Jason on the question of U.S. imperialism. But how is revolution on the agenda? I agree with quite a bit of what Richard said, but I’d extend it. If you look around America, and around the world, it would be very hard for anybody on the Left to claim that revolution is not actually necessary. Is revolution on the agenda? Absolutely. It is overripe, and in that rottenness of the situation resides a great deal of the problem. But to the statement that there’s no possibility for a revolutionary organization, as a historian, I would ask, “When has it been a good time to form a revolutionary organization?” If you want to go back centuries you will see that there were always incredible barriers. Now, circumstances are a little worse internationally, much worse domestically, but the fundamental question is the “distance from” and “degeneration of” 1917. But it has never been, and it never will be, an ideal time to form a revolutionary organization. If you keep waiting for the precipitous moment, history will pass you by.

JW: I want to clarify what I said about Vietnam, because I think it came across as a little mechanical. I believe it was significant that, where there had been and continues to be a strong strain of isolationism and pacifism in the U.S.—for instance, in response to World War I—in the 1960s and 1970s you actually had a split in the anti-war movement between the “Get out now,” “Bring the boys home,” “Save our troops” socialists and people like Maoists and the comrades of the Spartacist League at the time, who were actually calling for the defeat of U.S. imperialism. That is a significant development in terms of subjective consciousness, in terms of where the revolutionary will lay. What is needed is the will to advance subjective consciousness and to build a revolutionary party in the face of what are many and continuous opportunities that have presented themselves.

There is a difference between saying that there is a necessity for revolution and saying that revolution is a practical prospect, or even saying that forming an organization of people committed to revolution is a prospect. I think we would have to disentangle these different notions from this ambiguous idea of revolution “being on the agenda.” Platypus as a project is about the possibility of putting revolution back on the agenda, but the issue is how to get there from here. Commitment to revolution and the recognition of its necessity is one thing, but the question of how we make it an actual, practical prospect is quite different. If we agree that the objective conditions are ripe, or even overripe, but subjective conditions are nowhere near ready, that seems to immediately raise the question concerning programmatic continuity. If the subjective conditions are so underdeveloped, how can one take for granted that the program of the Communist Manifesto or of the Transitional Program is still applicable in the immediate sense, in that they provide the proper political platform for us today, and therefore all we need to do is organize around an already established program?

MM: Whether, and in what way, revolution is on the agenda is the fundamental question. There is a difference between saying revolution is on the agenda in a historical sense, because it is immanent to capitalism, and saying revolution is on the agenda in the “medium-term” sense or the immediate sense. In the mid-term, the workers’ movement was certainly on the rise between the 1870s and the 1970s, and in the immediate sense, Lenin gave us a wonderful test: “The ruling class cannot go on in the old way, and the masses will not go on in the old way.” We’ve actually just seen, in North Africa, what it means for revolution to be on the agenda: The ruling class cannot go on in the old way and the masses will not go in the old way.

How do we know Trotskyism is not a dead tradition? How would we know if it really were dead?

JW: I think Trotskyism is still relevant, and I think that we revolutionaries should still identify with the movement Trotsky built, because I think the fundamental questions that he was addressing, the fundamental questions that the living continuity of Marxism addresses, are the questions that the world still poses to us today. We are still in an imperialist epoch and these are the best answers, the best solutions, that have been discovered so far. To dismiss them because of historical pessimism throws out the baby with the bathwater.

MM: In terms of what’s going on in North Africa, the most probable outcome is defeat, because there is no revolutionary leadership. But the error of the Trotskyists (not necessarily Trotsky’s error) is to disregard what led to February, 1917, which enabled the Bolshevik party to provide revolutionary leadership.

We have seen Trotskyists in revolutionary crises: The Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas of Moreno failed the test of revolutionary crisis in Argentina in 1976. The POR Combate in the early 1970s failed the test in Bolivia. The Trotskyist Left in Portugal failed in 1974–1976. But if we ask why they failed those tests, it is not primarily a matter of their political errors. They simply did not have enough forces. They imagined that Bolshevism was microscopic in February, 1917, just like the little groups we have now. But the Bolshevik party numbered 17,000 in February, 1917, at which time it was completely illegal. That’s not a small organization; under illegal conditions, that’s a mass party.

I hope that revolution is not on the immediate agenda in the United States, or in Europe, because if it is, the outcome will certainly be a very serious defeat for the working class. It does not matter how pure and militant each individual group is, nor how much personal will each has. As long as we have small individual groups and not parties of hundreds of thousands, any revolution that comes will be defeated.

We have time, perhaps, to set out on the road of building those parties which could meet the tasks of revolution when the ruling class cannot go on in the old way, and the masses will not go on in the old way.

BP: Revolutionary organizations form in non-revolutionary situations. Yes, if revolution were declared now it would be a massive defeat for the working class and for the Left. But what revolutionary organizations do in that situation is not simply proclaim that they are there to lead the revolution, but carry out the work that brings a new set of circumstances onto the horizon.

So is Trotskyism dead? How would we know?

There are traditions that die, and then there are traditions that should die. My sense is that Stalinism is a dead tradition. It had a long death march but I think it has been buried. That doesn’t mean that it’s been vanquished as a political force in every locale. But Trotskyism is not of that order at all. Its explanations, its historical record, its theoretical insights, and its programmatic articulations, strike me as the living continuity of Marxism and Leninism in a particular epoch. And we are still in that epoch of capitalist decay, living in the shadow of what Stalinism has done to the revolutionary left, to its promise and possibility.

RR: I don’t think that Trotskyism is a dead tradition. I think it’s one that unfortunately has become opaque, but that is a different problem.

I think that if Trotskyism were in fact a dead tradition, that would mean that Marxism is a dead tradition. I would say the same thing about Marxism as about Trotskyism—it has become opaque. Trotskyism is more opaque than Marxism because it’s more specific to, and symptomatic of, the 20th century. Thus it is tied up fundamentally with the question of the Bolshevik revolution and Stalinism.

We only know if a tradition is dead in a negative sense, that is, as things get more barbaric and qualitatively worse. A tradition can be hopelessly obscured, buried so to speak. Its validity is not gone, yet it is inaccessible to people. An obscure, buried tradition is different than a dead one. The question is about accessibility to the meaning of Trotskyism and Marxism and how we disinter what is buried but not yet dead. |P

Transcribed by Ryan Hardy

[1]. James P. Cannon, “The Degeneration of the Communist Party and the New Beginning,” in The First Ten Years of American Communism (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 29-30. Originally published in 1954. Available online at <>.

[2]. Victor Serge, Resistance (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1989), 35.

[3]. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (London: Bolshevik Publications, 1998), 7. Available online at <>.

[4]. James Roberston and Shirley Stoute, “For Black Trotskyism,” (originally published in SWP Discussion Bulletin Vol. 24, No. 30, July 1963), reprinted in Marxist Bulletin 5 (Revised) (New York: Spartacist Publishing Company, 1994), 19. Available online at <>.

[5]. External Tendency of the iSt, Trotskyist Bulletin No. 2, “Marxism vs. Social Patriotism” (Toronto, 1984). Available online at <>.

[6]. Workers Vanguard No. 847, 29 April 2005. Available online at <>.

[7]. Leon Trotsky, “Stalinism or Bolshevism,” in The Writings of Leon Trotsky (1936-37) (New York: Pathfinder Press, Second Edition: 1978), 416. Available online at <>.

[8]. "Theses on the Role of the Communist Party in the Proletarian Revolution," in Second Congress of the Communist International: Minutes of the Proceedings, 2 vols., trans. Bob Archer(London: New Park Publications, 1977 [1921]. Available online at <>.

[9]. Jason Wright, “Trotsky’s Marxism: ‘The Point, however, is to Change It’,” Platypus Review 35 (May 2011). Available online at </2011/05/05/trotsky’s-marxism-“the-point-however-is-to-change-it”>.


Bret Schneider

Platypus Review 37 | July 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]  [Audio Recording]

At its Third Annual Convention, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago between April 29-May 1, Platypus hosted a conversation on “Art, Culture, and Politics: Marxist Approaches.” Platypus members Omair Hussain, Lucy Parker, Pac Pobric, and Bret Schneider sought to address “What might the problems of aesthetics and culture have to do with the political project of the self-education of the Left?” A full audio recording of the event is available by clicking the above link. What follows are Bret Schneider’s opening remarks.

THIS ESSAY IS SIMPLY TITLED “Trotsky’s Theory of Art.” The title may sound banal, but it is actually quite bizarre. For it is not self-evident why Trotsky would devote such time in 1924, in the midst of social revolution, to the history and prospects of Russian literature. Problematizing the unproblematized expanse of contemporary art production through Leon Trotsky’s writings on art may initially appear counterintuitive as well. Though he is well-known for his journalistic exploits, as an integral leader of the Bolshevik revolution, as a ceaseless proponent of Marxism and Leninism, and as the “last man standing” from the Second International, an art critic Trotsky was not, and so his central book, Literature and Revolution, appears as an odd duck (or a platypus, perhaps!). Nevertheless, Literature and Revolution scintillates with original artistic revelations and even a new theory of art, and one gets the impression that such unprecedented clarity, and even an unrivaled comprehensive perspective on the diverse art of his moment, is the artifact of, and only of, the ebullience of a new world in the making that now appears petrified. That is, the way art was framed was revolutionized—or in the state of revolutionizing itself—in various ways through Literature and Revolution. If, as Gregg Horowitz said in a recent discussion on contemporary critical theory,[1] we are standing in the way of history, if we are blocking the passage of a new world articulated long ago, then it might behoove us to investigate the original stakes of this historical venture and use it as a foil for the confounded present. These stakes included a new culture and a new art as only one of its elements, but such a new culture was clearly an integral concern for Leon Trotsky.

Literature and Revolution is a theory of history parallel to Trotsky’s 1906 Results and Prospects. In Results and Prospects, Trotsky assesses the 19th century bourgeois revolutions, and what unfulfilled latencies seemed to lead to their redemption by a socialist revolution (in 1905, but foreshadowing 1917). Trotsky’s examination was not merely a “cause and effect” study, but a living theory of how the revolution also changed the meaning of history and in what ways. I will not get into Results and Prospects here, but Literature and Revolution is a similar exegesis of bourgeois art, what its implications were for the self-determining constitution of a new culture, and how the new demands of revolution changed the way traditional art forms are and might come to be perceived. In this sense, Literature and Revolution is an artifact of a political becoming, the postulating of a new culture beyond class, as a category, not a reality attained by Bolshevik revolution, or to be identified with it. A decade earlier, Georg Lukács wrote a Hegelian study on the novel, articulating the novel as distinct from pre-modern literature by way of its being a form in flux, a self-constituting form in the process of its own transformation; in other words the novel is the paramount modern literary form specifically because it is a social problem, not a social solution, in a similar sense to how reification is a new problem to be resolved, and with something new to be gained by resolving it. This means framing political and artistic forms as problems, though: problems of tradition, how to depart from it, of the newfound contradictions between the individual and society, the new as the old in distress, as only some examples. Form in flux, open to new possibilities, co-developed with the new subject or the new human, as Trotsky framed it, is also why Benjamin later opened his “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” essay with a new theory of the receiver: “Baudelaire envisaged readers to whom the reading of lyric poetry would present difficulties.”[2] By the time Trotsky wrote Literature and Revolution, the modern becoming—a departure away from everything about the old world, but one that redeems it through abstract relationships with it—which Lukács articulated in the novel form had become such an inescapable problem that new, dynamic forms, unseen and unprecedented, were unanimously called for by social revolution, which sought to problematize this autonomy of art to pursue new, self-determining courses. Thus, Trotsky’s letter to Partisan Review in 1938 concerns overcoming the old world’s ideology of too easily rectifying art and politics, instead of understanding the newfound open possibility of each as a problem:

Art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them. Artistic creation has its laws—even when it consciously serves a social movement. Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of revolution only in so far as it remains faithful to itself.[3]

Trotsky echoes—or prefigures, or both—Walter Benjamin’s idea that art can only have the correct political “tendency” if it has aesthetic “quality,” an idea that would later influence Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory, in the sense that what Adorno later identified as the incomprehensibility of art is the precondition for greater reflection and a more adequate social reality (I will get into this a bit later). Every moment of Trotsky’s theory argues the autonomy of art, recently freed, and not constricted by political “reality.” In a sense, Trotsky is the first non-philistine, because he is arguing against a newfound possibility of philistinism, depending on which way international politics will go. In other words, there is an analogy to be drawn between Rosa Luxemburg’s “socialism or barbarism?” insofar as Trotsky seems to be asking, “aesthetics or philistinism?” But what does this mean?

First, this can be illustrated by the very attentive historical and formal criticism of “pre-revolutionary” bourgeois literature: a newly constructed tradition that can be constructively negated (foreshadowing Greenberg’s description of art as its “further entrenchment in the area of its competence,” as well as Adorno’s exhaustive ideas of “tradition”). This is where Trotsky contributes something absolutely new to the theory of art, and here does the previously unthinkable for Marxists: He promotes (and does not condemn) the art of the peasantry. This is not to say that he promotes the politics of the peasantry, but makes a significant distinction between art and the political sentiments contained in it. In other words, he defends the art over the artist. An idea emerges here of “the fellow traveler” of the proletarian socialist revolution, not equivalent to it, but parallel with it. Politics and art grasp each other indirectly for perhaps the first time, and the sheer inescapability of the revolution allows room for autonomous expressions of them that provide multiple, new, and dynamic perspectives that allow them to be seen more holistically, unobstructed by ideology. Regarding young peasant poets, Trotsky says,

It is as if they feel for the first time that art has its own rights….Why do we relegate them to being “fellow-travellers” of ours? Because they are bound up with the Revolution, because this tie is still very unformed, because they are so very young, and because nothing definite can be said about their tomorrow….As if an artist ever could be “without a tendency,” without a definite relation to social life, even though unformulated or unexpressed in political terms.[4]

Trotsky reconstructs Kliuev’s literary peasant world in order to illuminate, from an alternate angle of different subjectivity, the dynamism of the revolution. The way Trotsky speaks of Kliuev’s world is as a “tinsel fairyland,” and that a modern person cannot live in such an environment.”[5] Kliuev’s world is a mesmerizing individual dreamworld, a bucolic, slowly rotating mobile of glistening objects. Kliuev’s peasant world is portrayed as somewhat womb-like, a narcotic experience whose apparent individual peace is also a foreboding of social awakening.

Through delimiting the autonomous formalism of art Trotsky is able to construct an adequate image of cultural and political prospects previously unseen. Would Trotsky have been able to glean, concretely even, that the peasant world was in the process of withering away without literary investigation? Almost certainly. This raises the question of why it is necessary to retain multiple perspectives. Simply put, the achievement of multiple perspectives is an index of the crawling out of instrumental analyses. The exhaustive portrait of the individual peasant dreamworld throws into relief the radically different set of objects and subjects emerging in modern experience—the telephone, the train, the bustling development of metropolises, and the subjective openness of possibility, for example—in order to understand the world in flux more consciously. Similarly to the way Lukacs thought that the short story would take grip of the transient world—or rather the way that he took seriously the novel’s “half art” as a real expression of transforming social conditions—Trotsky perceived that social conditions exerted an influence on the form of Russian literature, demanding études, or sketches. It is easy to see how new cultural forms and mediums like radio, television and so forth would soon come to pass, as continual transformations required to meet the needs of a “modern person”, or a “new human” that needs art less and less, in accord with a society whose emancipated subjects are no longer bound to the continued suffering that is art’s raison d’être.

What Trotsky sees in the literary works of the “fellow travelers” is an openness of perspective that they participate in, but are not the wholly constituting expression of, because their seemingly complete and self-subsistent worlds, what Adorno would later call their hermetically sealed quality, are open to a new form of criticism that sees them as “dissonant” with society but not outside of it. Art has a newfound ability to be dissonant with and therefore critical of the social totality. It is nowhere implied that even the most reviling or “anti-Marxist” principles should be foreclosed by Marxist critique, but rather diagnosed to provide a portrait of social conditions at their most dynamic and heterogeneous. Even Kliuev’s occasional anti-Leninism is a welcome critique for Trotsky. Art is not only not exempt from this, but is exemplary in its problematic symptomology. Regarding another young writer’s confrontation with a new openness, Trotsky said, “One can take man, not only social, but even psycho-physical man and approach him from different angles—from above, from below, from the side, or walk all around him.”[6] That he pathetically “steals up to him from below,” evident through the literary form, shows that the old world fosters inadequate cliche assumptions of a “human nature” that need not exist. The autonomy to perceive humans from different angles artistically—which means a “formalist” problem—is a freedom opened up by political conditions, and one that implies the “new humans” Trotsky called for without even needing to enforce explicit ideology upon the art:

Our Marxist conception of the objective social dependence and social utility of art, when translated into the language of politics, does not at all mean a desire to dominate art by means of decrees and orders. It is not true that we regard only that art as new and revolutionary which speaks of the worker, and it is nonsense to say that we demand that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital! Of course the new art cannot but place the struggle of the proletariat in the center of its attention. But the plough of the new art is not limited to numbered strips. On the contrary, it must plough the entire field in all directions. Personal lyrics of the very smallest scope have an absolute right to exist within the new art. Moreover, the new man cannot be formed without a new lyric poetry. But to create it, the poet himself must feel the world in a new way.[7]

“Feeling the world in a new way” has resonance with us today as an intellectual idea specifically because it seems stifled. But the new feelings are, again, tied to the radically incomplete world in flux.

Pilnyak has no theme because of his fear of being episodic….Pilnyak wants to show present-day life in its relations and in its movement and he grasps at it in this way and in that, making parallel and perpendicular cross-cuts in different places, because it is nowhere the same as it was. The themes, more truly the theme possibilities, which cross his stories, are only samples of life taken at random, and life, let us note, is now much fuller of subject matter than ever before.[8]

Life in Revolution is camp life. Personal life, institutions, methods, ideas, sentiments, everything is unusual, temporary, transitional, recognizing its temporariness and expressing this everywhere, even in names. Hence the difficulty of an artistic approach. The transitory and the episodic have in them an element of the accidental and the accidental bears the stamp of insignificance. The Revolution, taken episodically, appears quite insignificant. Where Is the Revolution, then? Here lies the difficulty. Only he will overcome it who fully understands and feels the inner meaning of this episodic character and who will reveal the historic axis of crystallization that lies behind it.[9]

Art played a role in determining social totality by articulating the incompleteness of it. In Theory of the Novel, Lukacs describes art as always saying, “‘And yet!’ to life. The creation of forms is the most profound confirmation of a dissonance.”[10] Such a framework—endemic to Lukacs’ theory of the novel and Trotsky’s theory of the fellow traveler, notwithstanding Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory—brings up a vast number of questions for the contemporary, and also forces some all too easy associations. Contemporary artworks are often framed not as the problem, but the solution—or at least there is not a clearly defined dissonance between an artwork and the society it expresses.

This is enough to warrant the question of whether or not what passes itself off as art today could even be called so, but I will leave that to the side. In contemporary artworks we are faced with similar formal problems to those that Trotsky faced. For instance, if Trotsky was critical of the many nefarious endeavors to create a permanent proletarian culture (e.g., artists enlisting in the Proletkult) because the proletariat was a transitional phase to a much broader human freedom yet to be determined, but certainly one beyond the primitive class divisions of “proletariat” and “bourgeois,” what then can be said about the “radical” art activism of today that seeks to ally itself with a vague “working class” that is increasingly depoliticized? Is this alliance doomed to an eternal struggle? Moreover, Trotsky noticed that such political “commitments” were not without their compromising effects on the aesthetic experience and consequently the transformation of subjectivity. In order to “be pals with socialism and with the Revolution,”[11] Mayakovsky had to rely on antiquated cliché truisms that were backwards of modern life and articulated retrogression from Mayakovsky’s earlier, more progressive imagery (using skulls as ashtrays is an amusing example of retrogressive imagery). Trotsky also saw this wanting to be “pals” with the people, or a “mass base” without distinction, as a return to the bourgeois intelligentsia in the 19th century, who,

deprived of a cultural environment, sought support in the lower strata of society and tried to prove to the “people” that it was thinking only of them, living only for them and that it loved them “terribly.” And just as the populists who went to the people were ready to do without clean linen and without a comb and without a toothbrush, so the intelligentsia was ready to sacrifice the “subtleties” of form in its art, in order to give the most direct and spontaneous expression to the sufferings and hopes of the oppressed.[12]

That is, such an appeal to the “people” disregards the “splintering” or dissonant pluralism that Trotsky saw as endemic to the most significant successes of the Left over the course of its history.

As another example, in much new “experimental” music we hear the sounds of Kliuev’s “tinsel fairyland,” the subtle droning of vintage synth gear, a nostalgia for a private world. The “music” is like a narcotic, a therapeutic substance applied to the subject to cure what ails it. Electronic music might have once been counted amongst those modern things, an artifact of a dynamic mutability, but one that is stillborn in a state of endless, almost unsustainable decay. One is reminded again of Trotsky’s description of Kliuev, when we look at much recent album artwork. For example:

A wheat and honey paradise: a singing bird on the carved wing of the house and a sun shining in jasper and diamonds. Not without hesitation does Kliuev admit into his peasant paradise the radio and magnetism and electricity.[13]

In new experimental music a social torpor is embellished and sublimated into an ornate sort of poverty. What does it mean that the bourgeois individual experience of art is still naturally occurring today, without its being formulated as the progressive crisis of its own withering away?

One could go on with new art forms hearkening back to the past, re-digesting those bourgeois, bohemian tropes that fail to die, in the futuristic aspects of new net art for example (Trotsky considered Futurism to be retrograde bohemianism), or the return to painting, and so on. But what does this all amount to? Art wants to pass, it wants to finally die—it is not mere eccentricity that great artists once believed they were making the last artwork. If art finally died, this would signal that the “untransfigured suffering of man”[14] over the ages would finally be transfigured into something else. Simply pronouncing art dead, or irrelevant to the everyday is not enough to warrant its demise, as if it were so simple to eradicate the suffering of man. The culture industry—with its ceaseless thrusting of art in our faces—is the penance for failing to achieve socialism, but also the petrified reminder of its possibility. In this sense, art and culture are not the solution to, but rather the problem of, our own suffering, and the crystallization of this problem also implies redemption. Does it not seem that, contrary to this, we want to preserve art, to restore the world through art, and wasn’t this specifically a crucial element of fascism, or less dramatically, conservatism? In an era of where there are no historical tasks or clearly defined problems, any proposed solution is a false reconciliation. In Adorno’s words, “that the world which, as Baudelaire wrote, has lost its fragrance and then since its color, could have them restored by art strikes only the artless as possible.”[15]

We might today treat Trotsky with the critical method which Trotsky treated bourgeois art, except that this task seems impossible. The salience of Trotsky’s critique today—that we can so easily view the same problems as he did in apparently “new” art—is not the solution, but the problem. The continual indigestion of culture is a problem that needs to be problematized—no simple solutions can present themselves today without also seeing history as a problem. In other words, without historical consciousness that articulates the social situation of art, we are all relegated to philistinism, nostalgic for a moment where all possibilities didn’t seem foreclosed, or predetermined the way they do today. Perhaps now more than ever, art works yearn to be recognized as distinct from the political or social ideas that underlie them—that is, we should not condemn the nostalgia of new age experimental music for example, or the vulgar politics of social art, but formulate them as incomprehensible aesthetic problems that constantly reintroduce social redemption without exactly fulfilling it.

Contemporary art’s biggest and perhaps only problem is that it doesn’t formulate itself as a problem, but instead endeavors to devise quick-fix solutions. This is evident in everything from Fried and Greenberg’s criticism of “literal” art, to relational aesthetics, to the social turn that endeavors to make ‘concrete‘ interventions in the world, as if even the most rhetorical things are without effect. Ultimately this implies a distance so alienated that there seems no connection to the world we live in whatsoever. This is counterposed to a would-be “revolutionary art,” insofar as Trotsky (as quoted above) saw it as impossible for any form of art, no matter how depoliticized, to be somehow illuminative of a seemingly inevitable political becoming. Trotsky understood the forms of both peasant literature and futurism as illuminated by a concept of history that was no longer intact, but fragmentary. As mentioned earlier, Trotsky thought the idea that a work of art could ever be without a political or social tendency—or that some were more “social” than others—was absurd. It is no longer self-evident, as it once was, that all objects, art or otherwise, are shaped by social conditions in such a way that they imply society’s (as we understand it) exhaustion and deserve critical attention. Bourgeois art was withering away and seemed to be yielding to something else.

But without a concept of history—that is, the construction of historical problems—viewers are reduced to philistines, and artists are reduced to dilettantes, grappling for whatever is available, and this is not limited to art, but every other cultural object in the world (I think that Shana Moulton’s videos of subjective interactions with the abstract, everyday objects not limited to art, but nonetheless arty, captures this reified desperation quite well). In this light it is easy to frame the return to the avant-garde art styles—e.g. geometric abstraction, Ab-Ex, or Dada—as something almost wholly inartistic, and reducible to other kitschy objects utilized for the decoration of one’s apparent individuality. It is possibility that is longed for in ever more quixotic ways, and “avant-garde” style is the compromise when it can’t be grasped as a historical problem. This, of course, is kitsch.

In the contemporary state of affairs, where life is a series of arbitrary events without meaning or problematic substance, “fellow travelers” are perhaps reduced to particles in the arbitrariness of natural law. One can’t simply propose that “contemporary art is about this” notion, or is “embodied by that” reality, nor can one find revolutionary qualities in a certain style over another, as we are left without models or a concept of history to shape experience. For example, on the one hand, “art” and “politics” do not only fail to travel side by side, urging each other forward, but we can’t even find an apt metaphor for such traveling in Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road, whose characters aimlessly wander the scorched earth, carrying some vague human torch for future generations that may not exist, going “further along a dreary road,” occasionally bumping paths and sharing what precious scraps of humanity remain, as if it ever did. Rather, both contemporary “art” and “politics” might each be akin to the nameless, free-floating subject in Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnameable, who resembles a lawn ornament more than a human with anything that might be called agency: it is able to freely reminisce about past events that may, or may not have happened—no one really knows for certain—but is ultimately static, congealed into an object, ashen with the soot of forgetfulness and plagued by its never-has-been-ness, trying to reminisce, “but images of this kind the will cannot revive without doing them violence.”[16] One can say that there are no fellow travelers, not even travelers: “art” and “politics” today are lawn ornaments, helpless, kitschy novelties that are permitted continued existence only because they provide a source of petty entertainment to some alien and unknowable authority who finds them amusing in their harmlessness. Sharing a lawn, the contemporary Left and contemporary art believe they have finally found common ground. For instance, at two recent panel discussions hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society on the theme of art and activism, many panelists unanimously agreed that the propagandistic poster is a paradigm of art. With this idea they browbeat the audience into believing that this is the highest achievement of artistic form. Whether or not one agrees or disagrees with them is hardly the point. The problem is the regulation of aesthetic forms, naturalized without the criticism that Trotsky perceived as constitutive of the new world. Trotsky—like Benjamin, Adorno, and Greenberg—never foreclosed the endlessly open possibilities of any aesthetic form. As Adorno would later argue in “Commitment,” there are no rules, no formulae for artistic experimentation; certain artworks may be “exemplary, but not a model.”[17] Although Trotsky had deep and well-justified political qualms with the peasantry as much as with Futurism, he was constantly open, and even endeavored to further open the possible directions that their art might take. He criticized at length, taking the work more seriously than the artists often took their own work, and he ends many sections of Literature and Revolution with, “we must wish them luck” even when he disagreed. Trotsky thought, and hoped, that art would “plough the field in all directions.” We have to wonder what the prospects for this are like today. In some ways, there is no “ploughing in all directions,” but rather ploughing in a provincial expanse that rarely leaves the circumference of one’s own arm-length, constrained instead of liberated by a politics filled with “reality principles,” and “lived-world” abstractions that Adorno once criticized. Indeed, it is specifically “directionality” that is lacking, and so, helplessly, art contemplatively turns its critical shafts inwards—the confusion of autonomous art for a depoliticized “art for art’s sake” illustrates this. Ultimately, in the meandering reminiscences of one’s own inner fantasia, one must occasionally pass into the recognition of this contemplation—the question is whether or not this recognition can then be constructed, or if the possibility of life will pass us by.

Or, perhaps, on the other hand, it may be the case that contemporary art production ploughs too much, works overzealously, ploughing aimlessly, taking the new and autonomous freedom of art as natural law. It may be that political ideology and social criticism cannot penetrate art as the constrained suffering of humans’ failure to move forward, consequently becoming more mute. |P

[1]. J.M. Bernstein, Lydia Goehr, Gregg Horowitz, and Chris Cutrone, “The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today,” Platypus Review 31 (January 2011), available online at </2011/01/01/the-relevance-of-critical-theory-to-art-today/>.

[2]. Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Shocken Books, 1968), 155.

[3]. Leon Trotsky, “Art and politics in our epoch,” Partisan Review 1938. Available online at <>.

[4]. Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, trans. Rose Strunsky (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005 [1924]), 70–71. Available online at <>.

[5]. Ibid., 68.

[6]. Ibid., 74.

[7]. Ibid., 143–144.

[8]. Ibid., 77–78. Italics added.

[9]. Ibid., 76.

[10]. Georg Lukács, Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1920]), 72.

[11]. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, 133.

[12]. Ibid., 143.

[13]. Ibid., 67.

[14]. Theodor Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: Continuum, 2004 [1958]), 41–42.

[15]. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (New York: Continuum 2004), 50.

[16]. Samuel Beckett, Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable (New York: Grove Press, 2009), 109.

[17]. Walter Benjamin, “The Image of Proust,” in Selected Writings, Howard W. Jennings et al., vol. 2, 1927-1930, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 237.


Ian Morrison

Platypus Review 37 | July 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]  [Audio Recording]

At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University in NYC between March 18–21, Platypus hosted a conversation on “Trotsky’s Marxism.” Panelists Ian Morrison (Platypus), Susan Williams (Freedom Socialist Party), and Jason Wright (International Bolshevik Tendency) were asked to address, “What was Trotsky’s contribution to revolutionary Marxism? At one level, the answer is clear. Above even his significance as organizer of the October insurrection and leader of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, what makes Trotsky a major figure in the history of Marxism is his status as the leader of the Left Opposition and, later, his founding of the Fourth International. But this panel asks whether stating this fact is sufficient for understanding Trotsky’s Marxism, or whether this might not in fact merely beg the question. The issue remains: What was it in Trotsky’s evolution from the period of 1905 through the Russian Revolution of 1917 that allowed him to become the leader of the Left Opposition and the great Marxist critic of Stalinism in the 1920s and 1930s? What of Trotsky, rather than ‘Trotsky-ism’?” An audio recording of the event is available at the above link. An earlier issue (PR #35) included Jason Wright’s opening remarks. What follows are Ian Morrison’s opening remarks.

TO SPEAK ABOUT TROTSKY’S MARXISM, and not simply Trotsky himself, is to speak, above all, about the distance traveled from the First to the Second Internationals, as well, of course, as that from the Third to the Fourth. In what manner had political organizations and the discontents those organizations sharpened changed over time, from the Gotha program to the Erfurt program, from the Zimmerwald Conference to the April Theses, all the way to the Transitional Program? The question of Trotsky’s Marxism also seems to presuppose that an essential framework, namely the critique of political economy, somehow remains valid throughout these periods, and that hence the idea of being a Marxist is stable through time. That is, the question of Trotsky’s Marxism suggests that through events such as 1848 and the Paris Commune, and, during Trotsky’s lifetime, the 1905 and October Revolutions—that however cataclysmic they were, however profoundly they transformed the political landscape—still, somehow, Marx’s original standpoint remains. There is no simple, straightforward approach to this.

Trotsky himself was attentive to changing circumstances, arguing that the Bolsheviks (and his leadership thereof) had left an indelible mark on the past, present, and future of Marxism. “Before Marxism became 'bankrupt' in the form of Bolshevism,” he wrote on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution,

…it had already broken down in the form of social democracy. Does the slogan 'Back to Marxism' then mean a leap over the periods of the Second and Third Internationals…to the First International? But it too broke down in its time. Thus in the last analysis it is a question of returning to the collected works of Marx and Engels. One can accomplish this historic leap without leaving one's study and even without taking off one's slippers. But how are we going to go from our classics (Marx died in 1883, Engels in 1895) to the tasks of a new epoch, omitting several decades of theoretical and political struggles, among them Bolshevism and the October Revolution? None of those who propose to renounce Bolshevism as an historically bankrupt tendency has indicated any other course. So the question is reduced to the simple advice to study [Marx's] Capital. We can hardly object. But the Bolsheviks, too, studied Capital and not badly either. This did not however prevent the degeneration of the Soviet state and the staging of the Moscow trials. So what is to be done? [1]

Trotsky’s answer here, in short, is to study and deepen our understanding of Bolshevism from the present “Thermidorian Reaction” all the way back to the party’s origins. No “Marxism” can be complete, Trotsky maintains, without taking up this task, and he himself inaugurated the work, particularly in The Lessons of October (1924), The History of the Russian Revolution (1930), and his autobiography, My Life (1930). It is curious, looking at this incomplete bibliography, how carefully Trotsky modulated the genre of his writing to fit different objectives: as a revolutionary politician, as a historian, and as a modern subject struggling to reflect on his own life. There is no other writer, it seems to me, who presents such a full account of the period in question. His insistence (and persistence) on this score tells us quite a bit about how he sought to register the profound discontents emerging during his lifetime and, subsequently, what it meant to be a “Marxist” in Trotsky’s eyes. Clearly, Trotsky saw no need to reconstruct Marx’s critique of political economy, which is not to say that he believed it to be anachronistic. On the contrary. But during the intervening history—between Marx’s time and Trotsky’s—it seems important to underscore that the object of critique had been transformed as well as the organizations that were being intersected. Turn-of-the-century social democracy and the post-war communist parties are, sociologically, quite unlike the political organizations that made up the First International. In The Lessons of October Trotsky is addressing a political party of which he is a leader, and perhaps more importantly, one that is in power. The dangers and responsibilities of that organization (“the party”) are first and foremost on his mind. The subsequent history makes it clear that when a political party loses its grasp on reality, its degeneration is rapid.

I believe that is one reason why Trotsky begins The Lessons of October with the curious claim that “we met with success in the October Revolution, but the October Revolution has met with little success in our press.” Trotsky develops this claim well beyond a technical critique of the press. Rather, he implies that although the October Revolution appears “objectively” to have been a success, “subjectively” it potentially is not. For reasons that are by no means self-evident, this history is repressed. The party as an institution appears, then, not only as a means for revolutionary action, but also, potentially, as a means for evasion, a political obstacle par excellence. This claim, no doubt, is peculiar. How could a nation be mobilized without being fully cognizant of its intentions? How could the desire to overcome the status quo that had united disparate groups of men and women during “October” somehow be forgotten, averted, recoiled from by the very people who were mobilized by that desire to escape the present? There are many difficult questions here that go well beyond the typical condemnation of bureaucracy.

In Trotsky’s view the results are obvious enough, since he writes The Lessons of October as a response to failure in Germany. He argues that such a forgetful approach,

though it may be subconscious—is, however, profoundly erroneous, and is, moreover, narrow and nationalistic. We ourselves may never have to repeat the experience of the October Revolution, but this does not at all imply that we have nothing to learn from that experience. We are a part of the International, and the workers in all other countries are still faced with the solution of the problem of their own ‘October.’ Last year we had ample proof that the most advanced Communist parties of the West had not only failed to assimilate our October experience but were virtually ignorant of the actual facts. [2]

On first glance it may appear that there is a question of sheer ignorance. There is also the technical problem of simply producing and supplying the intellectual material. These are hardly irrelevant factors. Nonetheless, these factors do not explain the phenomenon itself, especially since this is a problem that has deepened immensely over time. Historical distance has rendered the problem even more opaque, as “narrow and nationalistic” sentiments have only grown. The question worth asking is: Why is it the case that the great struggle associated with Trotsky took the form of a “historical struggle,” a struggle to remember the past, and not merely a struggle of agitation and force?

Marx describes how the leaders of the French Revolution emulated “the Roman republic and the Roman empire.” [3] Socialists in the nineteenth century sought to revert to the craftsman's guilds of the pre-modern city-states. All these impulses and discontents Marx sought to ground in his theory of Capital, tearing asunder all the crude parodies of the past. The leaders of October had no such illusions; the paradigm, it seems, had changed. They struggled over the “incomplete present,” appraising the meaning of their actions on a world-historical scale. It is no small wonder that modern social thought emerged contemporaneously in figures like Émile Durkheim and Max Weber. Trotsky (and the Bolsheviks) simply stand out as a profound expression of this historical shift, with an acute understanding of the “October” experience.

Trotsky is even clearer on this score in an appendix to his History of Russian Revolution. In a revealing passage, he writes,

The task of the historian [in the period of “Thermidorian Reaction”] becomes one of ideological restoration. He must dig out the genuine views and aims of the revolutionary party from under subsequent political accumulations. Despite the briefness of the periods succeeding each other, this task is much like the deciphering of a palimpsest, for the constructions of the epigone school are by no means always superior to those theological ingenuities for whose sake the monks of the seventh and eight centuries destroyed the parchment and papyrus of the classics. [4]

This is no hyperbole. One only needs to take a quick glance at contemporary “Marxism” to get a sense of how terribly cryptic this material has become.

What was the “ideological restoration” needed? The reader cannot help but be struck by seemingly anticlimactic conclusion of the History, where Trotsky speculates:

The historic ascent of humanity, taken as a whole, may be summarized as succession of victories of consciousness over blind forces—in nature, in society, in man himself. Critical and creative thought can boast of its greatest victories up to now in the struggle with nature. The physico-chemical sciences have already reached a point where man is clearly about to become master of matter. But social relations are still forming in the manner of the coral islands. Parliamentarism illuminated only the surface of society, and even that with a rather artificial light. In comparison with monarchy and other heirlooms from the cannibals and cave-dwellers, democracy is of course a great conquest, but it leaves the blind play of forces in the social relations of men untouched. It was against this deeper sphere of the unconscious that the October revolution was the first to raise its hand. The Soviet system wishes to bring aim and plan into the very basis of society, where up to now only accumulated consequences have reigned. [5]

If we are to believe that history is more then a set of contingent factors, more then an oversized pinball machine shooting us around every which way, or a form of “divine providence” as the pre-moderns believed, we must approach the present as historical, such that “the tradition of all dead generations [really does weigh] like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” [6] This was the project Trotsky had set for himself, and it is the essence of his Marxism.

As far back as 1906, Trotsky had written in his pamphlet, Results and Prospects, “History does not repeat itself. However much one may compare the Russian Revolution [of 1905] with the Great French Revolution, the former can never be transformed into a repetition of the latter. The 19th century has not passed in vain.” [7] If only one could be so optimistic today! We face the uncertain phenomenon of 1989 effacing not only “October” but 1789 as well. It may no longer be the case that, as Trotsky once claimed, “The whole of modern France, in many respects the whole of modern civilization, arose out of the bath of the French Revolution!” [8] |P

[1]. Leon Trotsky, “Stalinism and Bolshevism” (28 August, 1937). Available online at <>.

[2]. Leon Trotsky, The Lessons of October, trans. John G. Wright (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1937 [1924]). Available online at <>.

[3]. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. Saul K. Padover. Originally published in 1852. Available online at <>.

[4]. Leon Trotsky, “Appendix No. 2: Socialism in a Separate Country?,” in The History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 3, The Triumph of the Soviets, trans. Max Eastman. Originally published in 1930. Available online at <>.

[5]. Leon Trotsky, “Conclusion,” in The History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 3. Available online at <>.

[6]. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire.

[7] Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects. Originally published in 1906. Available online at <>.

[8]. Leon Trotsky, “In Defense of October” (speech delivered in Copenhagen, Denmark in November, 1932). Available online at <>.


June 20–24, 2011
Institute for the Humanities, University of Illinois at Chicago

Marxism and the bourgeois revolution

Spencer Leonard, "Marx’s critique of political economy: Proletarian socialism continuing the bourgeois revolution?"
Pamela Nogales, "Marx on the U.S. Civil War as the 2nd American Revolution"
Jeremy Cohan, "Lukács on Marx’s Hegelianism and the dialectic of Marxism"
Moderator: Chris Cutrone

The "bourgeois revolutions" from the 16th through the 19th centuries -- extending into the 20th -- conformed humanity to modern city life, ending traditional, pastoral, religious custom in favor of social relations of the exchange of labor. Abbé Sieyès wrote in 1789 that, in contradistinction to the clerical 1st Estate who "prayed" and the aristocratic 2nd Estate who "fought," the commoner 3rd Estate "worked:" "What has the 3rd Estate been? Nothing." "What is it? Everything." Kant warned that universal bourgeois society would be the mere midpoint in humanity's achievement of freedom. After the last bourgeois revolutions in Europe of 1848 failed, Marx wrote of the "constitution of capital," the ambivalent, indeed self-contradictory character of "free wage labor." In the late 20th century, the majority of humanity abandoned agriculture in favor of urban life -- however in "slum cities." How does the bourgeois revolution appear from a Marxian point of view? How did what Marx called the “proletarianization” of society circa 1848 signal not only the crisis and supersession, but the need to fulfill and “complete” the bourgeois revolution, whose task now fell to the politics of “proletarian” socialism, expressed by the workers’ call for “social democracy?” How did this express the attempt, as Lenin put it, to overcome bourgeois society “on the basis of capitalism” itself? How did subsequent Marxism lose sight of Marx on this, and how might Marx’s perspective on the crisis of the bourgeois revolution in the 19th century still resonate today?

audio recording

The Marxism of Second International radicalism: Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky

Chris Cutrone, Lenin
Greg Gabrellas, Luxemburg
Ian Morrison, Trotsky
Moderator: Spencer Leonard

The legacy of revolution 1917-19 in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Italy is concentrated above all in the historical figures Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, leaders of the Left in the Second International (1889-1914) -- what they called “revolutionary social democracy” -- in the period preceding the crisis of war, revolution, counterrevolution and civil war in World War I and its aftermath. In 1920, Georg Lukács summed up this experience as follows: “[T]he crisis [of capital] remains permanent, it goes back to its starting-point, repeats the cycle until after infinite sufferings and terrible detours the school of history completes the education of the proletariat and confers upon it the leadership of mankind. . . . Of course this uncertainty and lack of clarity are themselves the symptoms of the crisis in bourgeois society. As the product of capitalism the proletariat must necessarily be subject to the modes of existence of its creator. . . . inhumanity and reification.” Nonetheless, these Marxists understood their politics as being “on the basis of capitalism” itself (Lenin). How were the 2nd Intl. radicals, importantly, critics, and not merely advocates, of their own political movement? What is the legacy of these figures today, after the 20th century -- as Walter Benjamin said in his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “against the grain” of their time, reaching beyond it? How did Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky contribute to the potential advancement and transformation of Marxism, in and through the crisis of Marxism in the early 20th century? How can we return to these figures productively, today, to learn the lessons of their history?

audio recording


Panel held at the Marxist Literary Group Summer 2011 Institute on Culture and Society at the Institute for the Humanities, University of Illinois at Chicago on June 22, 2011

The legacy of revolution 1917-19 in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Italy is concentrated above all in the historical figures Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, leaders of the Left in the Second International (1889-1914) — what they called “revolutionary social democracy” — in the period preceding the crisis of war, revolution, counterrevolution and civil war in World War I and its aftermath. In 1920, Georg Lukács summed up this experience as follows: “[T]he crisis [of capital] remains permanent, it goes back to its starting-point, repeats the cycle until after infinite sufferings and terrible detours the school of history completes the education of the proletariat and confers upon it the leadership of mankind. . . . Of course this uncertainty and lack of clarity are themselves the symptoms of the crisis in bourgeois society. As the product of capitalism the proletariat must necessarily be subject to the modes of existence of its creator. . . . inhumanity and reification.” Nonetheless, these Marxists understood their politics as being “on the basis of capitalism” itself (Lenin). How were the 2nd Intl. radicals, importantly, critics, and not merely advocates, of their own political movement? What is the legacy of these figures today, after the 20th century — as Walter Benjamin said in his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “against the grain” of their time, reaching beyond it? How did Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky contribute to the potential advancement and transformation of Marxism, in and through the crisis of Marxism in the early 20th century? How can we return to these figures productively, today, to learn the lessons of their history?

Chris Cutrone, Lenin
Greg Gabrellas, Luxemburg
Ian Morrison, Trotsky

Spencer Leonard


Jason Wright

Platypus Review 35 | May 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]  [Audio Recording]

At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University in NYC between March 18-21 , Platypus hosted a conversation on “Trotsky’s Marxism.” Panelists Ian Morrison (Platypus), Susan Williams (Freedom Socialist Party), and Jason Wright (International Bolshevik Tendency) were asked to address, “What was Trotsky's contribution to revolutionary Marxism? At one level, the answer is clear. Above even his significance as organizer of the October insurrection and leader of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, what makes Trotsky a major figure in the history of Marxism is his status as the leader of the Left Opposition and, later, his founding of the Fourth International. But this panel asks whether stating this fact is sufficient for understanding Trotsky’s Marxism, or whether this might not in fact merely beg the question. The issue remains—what was it in Trotsky's evolution from the period of 1905 through the Russian Revolution of 1917, that allowed him to become the leader of the left opposition and the great Marxist critic of Stalinism in the 1920s and 1930s? What of Trotsky, rather than “Trotsky-ism”? An audio recording of the event is available at the above link. The following are Jason Wright’s opening remarks.

LEON TROTSKY WAS A BRILLIANT WRITER, thinker, military strategist, and revolutionary organizer, whose life was defined by the struggle to preserve and develop the legacy of Bolshevism and the lessons of the October Revolution of 1917, the single most important historical event of the last 200 years. In an entry in his diary on March 25th, 1935 he wrote:

[I] think that the work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life—more important than 1917, more important than the period of the Civil War or any other.

For the sake of clarity I would put it this way. Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place….

Thus I can not speak of the “indispensability” of my work, even about the period from 1917 to 1921. But now my work is “indispensable” in the full sense of the word… There is now no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International[s].[1]

Trotsky was murdered by a Stalinist assassin a little more than five years later, but he lived long enough to launch the Fourth International and write the Transitional Program a document in which he codified the essential lessons of the October Revolution, thus, in his words, "ensuring a succession" of Bolshevism.

Trotsky was a relative latecomer to Lenninsm. Before joining the Bolshevik Party in 1917 he was one of its most vociferous, and prominent, opponents. Yet as early as 1901, before the publication of Lenin's justly celebrated What Is To Be Done?, Trotsky had flirted with the idea that the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) needed a more centralized apparatus than it then possessed. 2i] And when he escaped from Siberian exile in 1902 he joined Lenin in London. The next year, in 1903, he attended the Second Congress of the RSDLP, where Lenin sought to reorganize the party on a centralist basis. However, Trotsky rejected Lenin’s notion of a hard combat party, and instead favored the Menshevik model of a broad organization that would include sympathizers, fellow travelers, and well-wishers.

In hindsight it is clear that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 would have been impossible without the prior split with the Menshevik “softs.” But it took many sharp political struggles between 1903 and 1917 before the significance of the differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism came into focus for many of the participants. Looking back, Trotsky was harshly critical of his own role in 1903, writing:

My break with Lenin occurred on what might be considered “moral” or even personal grounds. But this was merely on the surface. At bottom, the separation was of a political nature and merely expressed itself in the realm of organization methods. I thought of myself as a centralist. But there is no doubt that at that time I did not fully realize what an intense and imperious centralism the revolutionary party would need to lead millions of people in a war against the old order.[3]

Trotsky had been wrong on the most essential issue, but he was not wrong about everything. In terms of the historical possibilities for the Russian Revolution, his vision was more acute than Lenin’s—particularly in the aftermath of the failed 1905 Revolution, which Lenin later referred to as a “dress rehearsal” for 1917.[4] Lenin’s thinking in 1905 remained essentially confined within the then prevailing Social Democratic orthodoxy that Russia must first pass through a bourgeois revolutionary stage. Trotsky, who had begun to take note of the combined and uneven character of Russia’s development and of the limitations of the nation state, recognized as early as 1904 that a successful revolution would require the working class to lead Russia far beyond the demands of the liberal bourgeoisie.[5]

The spark that set off the 1905 revolution was the “Bloody Sunday” massacre of workers peacefully marching to the Winter Palace to petition the Tzar in January of that year. There are many parallels between Russia in 1905 and the current wave of popular revolt sweeping the Arab world, but in some very important ways the Russian workers’ movement was more advanced than what we have seen recently. The tumult of 1905, which produced the first true mass organizations of working class power, the soviets, temporarily suppressed the cleavage between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Trotsky, who returned from exile when the revolution erupted, quickly emerged as a leading figure in the Petrograd Soviet, and in that capacity collaborated closely with the Bolsheviks.

When the revolution was defeated, Trotsky was jailed. While in prison he began to refine his theory of permanent revolution, which he elaborated in 1906 in Results and Prospects. He subsequently summarized his conception as follows:

[T]he Russian revolution, although directly concerned with bourgeois aims, could not stop short at those aims; the revolution could not solve its immediate, bourgeois tasks except by putting the proletariat into power. And the proletariat, once having power in its hands, would not be able to remain confined within the bourgeois framework of the revolution …

The contradictions between a workers’ government and an overwhelming majority of peasants in a backward country could be resolved only on an international scale, in the arena of a world proletarian revolution. Having, by virtue of historical necessity, burst the narrow bourgeois-democratic confines of the Russian revolution, the victorious proletariat would be compelled also to burst its national and state confines, that is to say, it would have to strive consciously for the Russian revolution to become the prologue to a world revolution.[6]

As his biographer, Isaac Deutscher, observed,

[T]his powerful insight shaped much of Trotsky’s future activity. In this brochure of eighty pages was the sum and substance of the man. For the rest of his days, as leader of the revolution, as founder and head of an army, as protagonist of a new International and then as hunted exile he would defend and elaborate the ideas he had put in a nutshell in 1906. Similarly, Karl Marx spent his whole life developing and drawing conclusions from the ideas he had advanced in the Communist Manifesto[7]

Yet despite his important insights on the shape of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky acted as an impediment to the development of an effective revolutionary party in Russia. From 1903 until the outbreak of World War I, he was perhaps the foremost advocate of a reunification between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. As the French historian Pierre Broué has noted,

[T]he more striking feature of this period is his constant striving at any price for conciliation and for the unity of the Russian Party. For Trotsky at that time, Lenin was sectarian and even secessionist, fully responsible for the Party split. The outcome of this line was the constitution of the 1912 August Bloc, in practice the regroupment of every current of the Party against Lenin and several so-called Party Mensheviks.[8]

The revolutionary events of 1917 forced Trotsky to belatedly recognize that he had been wrong and Lenin right on the necessity of a hard break with Menshevism. In a symmetrical development, Lenin’s April Theses were denounced by many old Bolsheviks as an expression of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Still, the essence of the partnership was that Trotsky came over to Lenin. The Russian Revolution was possible because Lenin had built a party whose cadres fought every form of revisionism and class-collaborationism. Once Trotsky made the leap to Leninism, he never went back, and from the day he joined there was, in Lenin’s words, “no better Bolshevik.”[9]

During the 1920s and 30s Trotsky extended and deepened Bolshevism “according to its own logical laws of development,” and upheld its internationalist core against the reactionary and autarchic nationalism of Stalin’s “socialism in one country.” Against the Comintern’s ultra-sectarian Third Period attacks on social democrats as “social fascists,” the Left Opposition advocated the creation of a united front between Communists and social democrats to smash the Nazis.

During the Spanish Civil War, Trotsky told the bitter truth about the betrayal of Andrés Nin and the POUM in supporting the cross-class “Popular Front” government. Trotsky asserted that the first step to defeating Franco and the forces of reaction was to break with all wings of the capitalists, including the “progressive” bourgeois forces aligned with the Popular Front. This was, of course, exactly what Lenin had proposed in his April Theses.

Today we have a somewhat analogous situation with Hugo Chavez, the left-talking Bonapartist that heads the Venezuelan capitalist state. He must of course be defended against attacks by the CIA or rightist coups, as the Trotskyists sided with the Spanish republicans against Franco and the Bolsheviks blocked with Kerensky against Kornilov in 1917. But, like both the Spanish Popular Front and Kerensky, Chavez deserves no political support from revolutionaries.

Trotsky’s contributions—including his incisive critique of the degeneration of the Soviet Union and the Communist International—are largely ignored by contemporary dilettantish left academics, who generally prefer parsing the opaque prose of Antonio Gramsci or C.L.R. James, or engaging in other even less rewarding pursuits.

Trotsky’s policy was always to “put program first.” Today most of those who claim his legacy take exactly the opposite approach. In France, the former Revolutionary Communist League (LCR—which falsely claimed the mantle of the Fourth International) has rechristened itself the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) and abandoned any pretense of Leninism in an attempt to find a niche in a popular front government. This has been coming for a long time: 30 years ago the LCR (and most of the rest of the world’s “Trotskyists”) were enthusing over the Ayatollah Khomeini’s reactionary mass movement in Iran, the CIA-supported Afghan Mujahedin, and Lech Walesa’s counterrevolutionary Solidarnosc in Poland.

In his last major political fight, Trotsky locked horns with a section of American followers that renounced the defense of the degenerated Soviet workers’ state. In that struggle, Trotsky observed that “[i]t is the duty of revolutionists to defend every conquest of the working class even though it may he distorted by the pressure of hostile forces. Those who cannot defend old positions will never conquer new ones.”[10] This is not just a historical question—it remains on the agenda today for the deformed workers’ states in Cuba, China, Vietnam and North Korea.

In the August 1991 showdown in the Soviet Union, we of the International Bolshevik Tendency were virtually alone in militarily siding with Stalinist remnants against Boris Yeltsin’s forces—a necessary position from the standpoint of defense of the Soviet degenerated workers’ state. By 1991, the Spartacist League, which only eight years earlier was openly identifying with Stalin’s heir Yuri Andropov (the butcher of the 1956 workers’ political revolution in Hungary), refused to take sides in the final showdown between the Stalinist “hardline” remnants and Yeltsin’s counterrevolutionary rabble. It could have been worse—most of the rest of the world’s supposed “Trotskyists” openly supported the pro-imperialist Yeltsinites.

Trotsky’s ideas remain a vitally important guide for action today because, as recent events from Egypt to Wisconsin clearly show, the future of humanity depends on finding an answer to the essential problem he addressed in the Transitional Program of 1938—the “crisis of proletarian leadership.” Trotsky’s devotion to the struggle for human liberation continues to inspire many of the young fighters around the world who recognize that the only way out of the endless horrors of global imperialism is through revolutionary organization. He had an immensely powerful intelligence and a brilliant facility for expression, but perhaps more importantly he was one of those exceptional individuals who, in the words of James P. Cannon, remained true to the revolutionary ideals of his youth.[11] His entire life was governed by Marx’s injunction in the 11th thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” |P

[1]. Leon Trotsky, Trotsky’s Diary in Exile—1935 (New York: Atheneum, 1963), 46–7. Quoted in Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (London: Bolshevik Publications, 1998), 5. Available online at <>.

[2]. The 1901 letter on centralization is quoted in Leon Trotsky, Report of the Siberian Delegation (London: New Park, 1980 [1903]), 39–42. Available online at <>. It is also discussed in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989 [1954]), 44–46.

[3]. Leon Trotsky, My Life (New York: Pathfinder, 1970 [1930]), 162. Available online at <>

[4]. V.I. Lenin, “’Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder,” in Collected Works, Vol. 31 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1961 [1920]), 27. Available online at <>

[5]. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879–1921 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989 [1954]), 99–116.

[6]. Leon Trotsky, 1905 (New York: Random House, 1971 [1907]), vi­–vii. Available online at <>.

[7]. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 [1954] (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p 162.

[8]. Pierre Broué, “Trotsky: A Biographer’s Problems” in The Trotsky Reappraisal, ed. Terry Brotherstone and Paul Dukes (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992), 17.

[9]. "The Lost Document," in Leon Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification (London: New Park, 1974), 82. Available online at <>.

[10]. Leon Trotsky, “Balance Sheet of the Finnish Events,” in In Defense of Marxism (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1995 [1942]), 271. Available online at <>

[11]. James P. Cannon, “Sixtieth Birthday Speech,” in Notebook of an Agitator (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973 [1958]), 180–1.


One of the plenary sessions held at the third annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, hosted by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago between April 29–May 1, 2011, set about exploring the legacy of Trotsky’s Marxism.

Transcript in Platypus Review #38 (Click below):

Speakers Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Bryan Palmer of Trent University, Richard Rubin of Platypus, and Jason Wright of the International Bolshevik Tendency were asked to consider:

“What is the relevance of Trotskyism for the Left today? On the one hand, there is a simple answer: The mantle of Trotskyism is claimed by many of today’s most prominent and numerous leftist parties in America and Europe (and beyond). The International Socialist Organization in America, the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, and the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in France all have their origins in Trotskyism. Evidently, the collapse of Stalinism in 1989 left Trotskyism’s bona fides, as anti-Stalinist Marxism, intact. On the other hand, Trotskyism has been infamously associated on the Left with sectarianism. Certainly, the ISO, SWP and NPA long ago made their peace in crucial ways with the politics of the post-Marxist New Left — a revisionism that their sectarian brethren (for instance, Trotskyism’s bête noire, the Spartacist League) have proudly and doggedly opposed. However, despite their differences, all varieties of Trotskyism today evince the conditions of the New Left’s ‘return to Marxism’ in the 1970s, for which the legacy of Trotsky provided one significant vehicle (the other being Maoism). For instance Trotsky’s biographer, Isaac Deutscher, strongly influenced the journal New Left Review. And yet there is something peculiar about this legacy. As one Platypus writer has suggested, Trotsky is as out of place in the post-World War II world as Voltaire or Rousseau would have been in the world after the French Revolution. Trotsky, unlike Trotskyism, exemplifies the classical Marxism of the early 20th century, and that tradition certainly died with him. Thus, before we can understand how Trotskyism’s legacy has influenced the Marxism of our time, we must first answer the question: What has Trotskyism made of Trotsky’s Marxism?”

Mike Macnair, Communist Party of Great Britain (Oxford Univ. St. Hugh College)
Bryan Palmer (Trent University)
Richard Rubin, Platypus
Jason Wright, representative of the International Bolshevik Tendency
Representative of the International Socialist Organization (Declined to attend)