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The dead Left: Trotskyism

The Platypus Historians Group

Platypus Review 6 | September 2008

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“One cannot separate the ability to know the world from the ability to change it, and our capacity to change the world is on a very small scale compared to the heroic days of the Communist International.”
—James Robertson, founder of the Spartacist League (U.S.), "In Defense of Democratic Centralism" (1973)

Zombies and Sectarians

What does it mean to say, as Platypus does, that “the Left is Dead?”

It represents the desire for a tabula rasa, for a start from scratch. It is the admission that there is no living tradition, no movement to join in the Marxist Left; That it has been defeated and that it has self-destructed. It means that the Maoisms and Trotskyisms that today stumble around like zombies in the form of tiny sectarian groups have either given themselves to dishonestly cheerleading for the Green and Democratic parties or simply have become antiquarian societies reciting old revolutionary pieties with the mechanical enthusiasm of Hare-Krishna monks; While at the same time the “radicals” and “anarchists” that prescribe dropping out of society by building “alternative communities” “outside of capitalism” have rationalized their powerlessness into a lifestyle that poses as politics.

The Left is dead—and whatever undead elements of it continue to stagger among us deserve to be put down before they demoralize and stupefy a new generation.

But it must be said: calling for the end of a previous model of Leftist politics is nothing new. Both the “down with the old, in with the new” and the “return to fundamentals” move is familiar on the Left. Examples of this abound in academia—but also in the militant Left, with examples such as the rejection of Soviet Marxism that characterized the New Left of the 1960s and the “return to Lenin” or “return to Marx” theories of Western Maoist groups in the same era. Also, worst of all, from the false sense of “emancipation” and “freedom from the past” that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the “death of communism” gave to most on the self-described Left—a sense of triumphalism that is still with us.

For a Left that has gone from its death agony to its rigor mortis while fighting the good fight, the wish to escape the past has meant the willingness to repeat its mistakes; either by the unreflective disowning of past failures (e.g., New Left anti-communism) or simply by tailing behind events too large to control or influence ( post-soviet triumphalism). To reach for the new without having mastered the old is an indication of a desire to close one’s eyes to the way that the past continues to haunt the present, wresting it from our control.

For these reasons, Platypus looks at the past neither as something to turn away from nor as a tradition to uphold. Instead we see it as the set of failures which have determined our own existence and our own project. We see our task as the investigation of these failures, from the most obtuse ones to the most brilliant ones, for the purpose of critically considering the possibilities for Leftist politics today.

With this in mind, we have offered a set of starting points and critical positions that that have met with hostility and accusations from the walking-corpse-Left. Our interest in rescuing the deep roots of Marxist thought in the high liberalism of thinkers like Kant and Hegel has made us mere “liberals” in the eyes of the undead. For them, we simply cannot truly be “radicals,” since we don’t reject “bourgeois ideology” tout court.

A more interesting accusation has taken place when zombie sectarians such as the ISO and the Spartacist League have called us “pro-imperialist” and “neo-conservatives” in response to our critique of the dishonesty, nihilism and stupidity of the American and European antiwar movements. These movements, we have argued, have tended to fall into support for the “war as bad business” anti-war argument of the Democratic Party—or worse, have tacitly supported the fascistic, right-wing forces that oppose the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. The possibility of explaining both the nature of today’s American imperialism and the (all too sane) demented politics of the Islamist opposition to the US in a single unitary critique of present social reality seems to be beyond the perspective of the dwindling anti-war movement and the sectarian “revolutionary” groups that cling to this movement for dear life.

There is a bit of historical irony in that the authoritarianly Manichean worldview of today’s “Left,” labels anyone who raises any of these concerns a “neo-con.” Ironic because the emergence of neo-conservatism was indeed an artifact of the Left’s own self-destruction, since the initiators and first followers of this tendency were Left-liberals and ex-Trotskyists that had come to reject a “Left” that by the 1960s had little to offer but the unviability of Moscow on the one hand, and, on the other, the New Left’s refusal to think.

Second International Radicalism and Trotsky: “The last man standing”

The third label Platypus gets branded with is the most interesting one, and the one closest to the truth: that we are Trotskyists.

In fact, Platypus is in no way a Trotskyist organization, but we think that Leon Trotsky’s thought and the heroic—and losing—struggle that he fought after his exile from the Soviet Union are necessary for an understanding of the thwarted potential for emancipation represented by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

Trotsky and his project in exile represented “the last man standing” of a kind of historical consciousness that we in Platypus have come to refer to as Second International radicalism. This was the consciousness of a political task in a specfic moment in history that is best represented by the names Lenin, Luxemburg, Korsch, Liebknecht, and Trotsky: all of them dissenting members of the conservative Second Socialist International. During the lead-up to the First World War, the Second International, having the largest membership it had ever had, recoiled from its avowed commitment to proletarian revolution: Each member party of the International supported their government’s war effort. Second International radicalism, instead of seeing in the war an unfortunate event out of its control, saw it as precisely the crisis of the capitalist system that indicated an opportunity for proletarian revolution. It was a crisis in which the growth of the contradictory forces of capital gave birth to a series of imperialist conflicts that culminated in the largest war mankind had ever seen. With the international bourgeois order in disarray and a powerful workers movement, the Second International radicals thought that it was the moment for the insurrectionary struggle that would topple bourgeoisie’s rule.

This understanding of the situation was what led Lenin’s Bolsheviks to take power in October of 1917, after a workers’ and soldiers revolt, triggered by Russia’s defeats in the war, succeeded in ousting the Tsar. This was also what led Rosa Luxemburg’s revolutionary party, the Spartakusbund to attempt, and fail, to grab hold of the leadership of the proletarian revolution in Germany in 1918-19.

For most of the Second International socialists, Lenin’s coup was an irrational gamble. And a gamble it was—though not wholly irrational. In the vision of Lenin and Trotsky, the Soviet Union was meant to be merely a foothold into the crisis of the War, a foothold that would come into fruition only if proletarian revolts took power in other Western European nations. This was necessary because it was certain that as soon as the Bolsheviks established their regime, the imperialist governments that surrounded them would attack and easily destroy it. This attack in fact happened, when Germany, Britain and Japan lent their support to the various right-wing military coups that were attempting to take down the Bolsheviks after 1918. And since revolutions across Europe that the Bolsheviks so desperately needed either did not take place or were violently put down—as in the case of Germany—the Bolsheviks saw themselves forced to fight tooth and nail to stay in power.

They were—miraculously—not destroyed. But holding on to power had its cost. The regime was isolated. After Lenin’s death, despite the attempts of Leon Trotsky’s Left Opposition to steer the Soviet Union back into a world-revolutionary perspective, Stalin was able to take complete control and lead the regime into capitulating and accepting “socialism in one country” by 1928. This was a policy that destroyed any kind of revolutionary perspective by making the Soviet Union into a nation state whose condition of permanent social and economic crisis fostered the growth of a bloody, repressive, totalitarian bureaucratic regime. From his exile in1928 to his assassination in 1940 Trotsky struggled to build a movement from outside of the Soviet Union whose aim would be to strengthen non- Stalinist international communism around the world and to rescue the Soviet Union from its conservative regime.

His movement, which came to be known as the Fourth International, despite a growth of membership in the United States and France, was too weak to really take off, and after Trotsky’s death suffered splintering and disorganization— a process of decay that slowly transformed Trotsky’s movement into the petty and squabbling, cultish and hysterical, Trotskyism of today.

Trotsky was not only the single political figure that was able to maintain a revolutionary perspective of the Second International radicals in a time of reaction. He was also the last surviving exemplar of the revolutionary political consciousness produced by what was arguably the single moment in history up to date when the transition to socialism was a real possibility: 1917-1921. By the 1930s Lenin was dead, Luxemburg and Liebknecht had been brutally murdered, Karl Korsch had become fervently anti-soviet, and Georg Lukacs, the most important theoretician of this moment, had weakened and adapted himself to Stalinism. Only Trotsky and his movement stood—in exile and with little power—without succumbing to either of the two dominant perspectives on the Soviet Union of the time. The first one was support for Stalin’s conservative, Thermidorian regime. The second, the kind of liberalism that in observance of the need of democracy and human rights, wished to see a restoration of bourgeois rule in the region.

For Trotsky, the fight against Stalinism was the fight to make the Soviet Union a revolutionary force once again. The fight to preserve the Soviet Regime and avoid the restoration of bourgeois rule was necessary, since, as he predicted, such restoration would only bring about a right-wing dictatorship. Something that in fact belatedly came true in the form of Vladimir Putin’s ominous hold over Russia today.

If a deepening of the contradictions of capitalism and an increase in the possibility of socialism can be traced in a line that goes from the European Revolutions of 1848, to the Paris Commune of 1871, to the founding of the Second Socialist International in 1891, to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917; and if this line is only broken by a line of regress brought into being by the World Wars, Nazism and the Cold War; then Leon Trotsky’s political consciousness can be seen as the last vestige of a Left not yet in decay. Trotsky’s movement was thus the last exemplar of a movement that was the highest expression in theory and practice in emancipatory politics since Marx.

This is the Left that informs Platypus’s critique of the present.

Trotsky-ism in Regression

But doesn’t this estimation of the history of the Left leave us only the option of becoming a Trotskyist organization like the ones whose mode of operation these days is to accost hapless protesters with shrill accusations of Menshevism before asking them to buy their newspaper for a dollar? If the tradition behind Trotskyism is in fact the richest one in emancipatory politics, why is the Trotskyism of the present so rotten?

We would indeed be in a great place politically if, as some of the necro-sectarian Trotskyists of today claim, what we needed to do was simply to build a Leninist proletarian party. But in the era of decline of opportunities for emancipatory politics that began in the 1930s and continues today, social reality presented an increasingly obdurate face to the bearers of these kinds of politics. Capitalist society remade itself after the crisis of the first world war and the opportunity of 1917-21. As the new order of the “administered society” replaced classical, liberal capitalism in the form of Fascism, Stalinism and the bourgeois welfare state, the political tradition inaugurated by Lenin and Luxemburg and maintained first by Trotsky and, after his death, by Trotsky’s followers saw itself less and less able to change the world.

As we’ve learned from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, the world can only be known to the extent that it can be changed. The less leverage the declining Trotskyist movement had, the more that it fell into a sclerotic tendency to raise the tactical, historically specific, formulations of these historical figures into matters of permanent theoretical principle. This is because when history stagnates so does thought; as its sphere becomes removed from the movement of real events it falls away, powerless, into a purely contemplative position.

Because of this impotence, concepts as dear to today’s Trotskyism as Lenin’s vanguard party, Luxemburg’s mass strike, and Trotsky’s defense of the deformed workers’ state, started to hold an increasingly tenuous and obtuse relationship to the events of the day. These ideas were in fact the material out of which Marxist orthodoxy was built and as they spun away from any kind of applicability to the real world, to maintain Marxist orthodoxy began to mean the opposite of what it meant at the beginning of the 20th century. Instead of being the set of ideas with which to shake the world out of its blind course, orthodoxy begins to represent a nostalgic turning away from the world. The melancholic orthodoxy of today’s Trotskyism reminds us of the thwarted lover who instead of successfully mourning and overcoming his loss will endlessly talk to his friends about all the ways that “she did him wrong” until he finds that his friends don’t want to talk to him anymore.

Trotskyism was the best of the Left, but even the best people stink when their corpses begin to decompose. Platypus exists for the purpose of burying the corpses so as to be able to continue the work of the deceased without the stink.

Thus we are faced with the problem of discontinuity. We in Platypus see ourselves as suffering from a necessary discontinuity from the tradition of Revolutionary Marxism. It is indeed unfortunate that the Left is dead. It is indeed unfortunate that we are in no place to build a mass worker’s movement and to overthrow capitalism. We are victims of this discontinuity, but we have to recognize it as a fact and as a starting point. We are not, as others claim to be, “the true party of the Russian Revolution” because to claim that today is to do a disservice to the original vision of the Russian Revolution. To be prepared to fight the good fight forever is to be resigned to never winning it. To not be willing to recognize that the Left is dead is to have died with it. As researchers, critics, and historians of the dead Left, which we now put to rest with a deep feeling of gratitude, we hope to be ready to educate a future politics of emancipation. |P

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