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notes on Trotsky and Trotskyism

I am writing with some brief notes on Trotsky's Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the 4th International, AKA the Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution (1938).

Trotsky and the phenomenon of Trotskyism was and remains a highly controversial political and historical phenomenon, but one to which one's reaction is highly symptomatic and indicative.

We in Platypus regard Trotsky as the "last man standing" of what we call 2nd International radicalism, and thus treat the "Trotskyism" of the 1930s as the final remaining strand of this earlier revolutionary Marxist politics.

The tragic character of Trotskyism is well articulated by Trotsky's biographer Isaac Deutscher, who regarded Trotsky's decision to found a 4th International as tragically mistaken, but inevitable given Trotsky's character. Thus the tragic character of the historical figure of Trotsky and of the history through which he lived are identified with each other.

But, as Trotsky himself put it, if his 4th Intl. project was unviable, then this would place the entire revolutionary Marxist project, and Marxism itself, not only as a political tendency but also as an analysis of modern society, in doubt.

Just as Rosa Luxemburg wrote in the Junius pamphlet of 1915 that with the collapse of the 2nd Intl. in WWI the entire history of the modern workers' movement stood in doubt, Trotsky said the same of the crisis of communism that took place with triumph of Stalinism and the success of fascism in the 1930s. For it is not only a matter of making good on past gains, but rather the character of those "gains" themselves. As Luxemburg pointed out about the phenomenon of "revisionism" of Bernstein et al. in the 1890s-1900s, that they were reacting to the advanced problems of Marxism's own success and retreating to a moribund liberalism, Trotsky pointed out that Stalinism was a reaction to the advanced problems of "Bolshevism," what tasks had been revealed by the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath. Without advance, retreat is inevitable. Without victory there must be defeat, and defeat has its unavoidable costs. The challenge was to make sense of the defeat and not to rationalize it, nor, as the Stalinists did, to call defeat "victory." Trotsky is the figure who resisted this attempt to ward off reality with wishful thinking. This is the standing challenge Trotsky makes to subsequent generations of (the degeneration of) the Left.

On the other hand, Stalinism was a recrudescence and retreat to social-democratic reformism with the failure of the international revolution that had opened in 1917 in Russia and 1918-19 in Germany, 1919 in Hungary and Italy, etc. The problem of "revisionist" reformism that had confronted Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky in the pre-WWI period recurred with the Stalinization of international communism in the 1920s-30s.

So what is meant by "Stalinism?" Simply put, it was the adaptation to defeat. It was not the personal manipulations of a pathological dictator, Stalin, but rather the overall political phenomenon of ideological-theoretical and practical-political disarray that came with the failure of the revolution.

Trotsky attempted to stem the tide of such practical disarray and intellectual confusion, and so was accused by the Stalinists, social democrats and liberals of being either "ultra-Leftist" or reactionary-Right wing, or, as it was put in the Great Purge Trials, "Trotskyist-fascist wreckers."

It should be borne in mind that the Purge Trials of the late 1930s, which were carried out under the mandate of purging "Trotskyism," were tolerated and accepted by liberals in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere. It was only later, with the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, that the liberal fellow travelers of Stalinism, discovered retrospectively, the "totalitarian" character of Soviet Communism.

Not merely Stalin as a dictator, but rather the deeper phenomena of adaptation and opportunism were the enemies of the Left that Trotsky sought to confront, both in the interest of practical political success of revolutionary Marxism, and for theoretical-ideological clarification.

A seldom remarked-upon fact is that the Mensheviks eventually embraced the Bolshevik Revolution -- but only retrospectively. In the early 1920s they convened and accepted the retroactive "historical legitimacy" of the October Revolution, after the Bolsheviks prevailed in the Civil War in which the Mensheviks had opposed them.

This "acceptance" of the October Revolution paved the way for many Mensheviks to join the expanded Russian Communist Party in the 1920s, when it was massively expanded (through what were called "Lenin levies"). An irony of history -- but one fully explicable from Trotsky's point of view -- is that the lead prosecutor in the Purge Trials of the late 1930s was a former Menshevik. By the 1930s, the Bolshevik Revolution became acceptable to liberals and social democrats precisely in its Stalinized form. This is because of the opportunism in practical and ideological adaptation in theory they all, Stalinists, social democratic reformists, and liberals, shared in common.

Only Trotsky and his small group of collaborators resisted this, just as only a handful of 2nd Intl. radicals had resisted the opportunist collapse of 2nd Intl. Marxism.

Trotsky has a great discussion of "splinters and pioneers" in his 1938 letters to the Partisan Review on "Art and Politics in Our Epoch:"

"Not a single progressive idea has begun with a 'mass base,' otherwise it would not have been a progressive idea. It is only in its last stage that the idea finds its masses -- if, of course, it answers the needs of progress. All great movements have begun as 'splinters' of older movements. In the beginning, Christianity was only a 'splinter' of Judaism; Protestantism a 'splinter' of Catholicism, that is to say decayed Christianity. The group of Marx and Engels came into existence as a 'splinter' of the Hegelian Left. The Communist International germinated during the war from the 'splinters' of the Social Democratic International. If these pioneers found themselves able to create a mass base, it was precisely because they did not fear isolation. They knew beforehand that the quality of their ideas would be transformed into quantity. These 'splinters' did not suffer from anemia; on the contrary, they carried within themselves the germs of the great historical movements of tomorrow.

"In very much the same way, to repeat, a progressive movement occurs in art. When an artistic tendency has exhausted its creative resources, creative 'splinters' separate from it, which are able to look at the world with new eyes. The more daring the pioneers show in their ideas and actions, the more bitterly they oppose themselves to established authority which rests on a conservative 'mass base,' the more conventional souls, skeptics, and snobs are inclined to see in the pioneers, impotent eccentrics or 'anemic splinters‚' But in the last analysis it is the conventional souls, skeptics and snobs who are wrong -- and life passes them by."

The challenge is to redeem Trotsky's project of resisting the destruction of Marxism, which was not accomplished by subsequent generations of "Trotskyists" -- and could only be accomplished by making the revolution. This goes for Lenin and Luxemburg as well. And this includes Marx.

The critical theory of Adorno, Benjamin, Lukacs, Korsch, et al., is ultimately meaningless without the revolution. It will not only prove to be the case that their work has come to be meaningless, but that it was always ever meaningless. The unfolding of history without making good on the intellectual insights and practical gains of the past makes all those past efforts worthless.

Only through our own efforts can we make such struggling-in-suffering of the past to have (had) any value. This is the ultimate meaning of Trotsky. For today the entire history of humanity stands in doubt -- as it has since Marx's time. This is what the threat of regression and barbarism means: in Benjamin's words, "even the dead are not safe."

-- As Richard pointed out in his presentation at the Dialectics of Defeat panel we did at the Left Forum NYC in April, this is the fundamental affinity of Benjamin and Adorno with Trotsky, the "secret, unfulfilled history of the 20th Century" that Platypus seeks to redeem. And if we don't do it, no one else will.

But first we must be clear what we are trying to redeem so that we can grasp what redeeming it will mean, and what the deepest stakes of such redemption are that continue to task us in the present.

When we read something like Trotsky's Transitional Programme, like Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto, don't we want to fulfill and satisfy its demands? -- If so, we need to try to understand why and how we would do so.

So it is not a matter of Trotskyism having failed, but rather why we would have wanted it to have succeeded, and what Trotsky's delayed success, as Lenin, Luxemburg and Marx's, would mean for us today.