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On April 8, 2017, for the closing plenary of its 9th Annual International Convention, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a panel discussion, 1917–2017, at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Tasked with reflecting on the historical significance of 1917 for the Left, the panel brought together Bryan Palmer, Chair of the Canadian Studies Department at Trent University and author of numerous histories of the Left; Leo Panitch, Professor of Political Science at York University, author, and co-editor of the Socialist Register; and Chris Cutrone, President of the Platypus Affiliated Society. Pamela Nogales, of Platypus, moderated. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.

Held April 8, 2017 at SAIC as part of the 9th annual Platypus International Convention.

Panelists:

Chris Cutrone (School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Platypus)
Leo Panitch (York University; editor of
Socialist Register)
Bryan Palmer (Trent University, author of
Marxism and Historical Practice)

Description:

The First World War manifested an economic, social and political crisis of global capitalism, – “imperialism” – which sparked reflection in the mass parties of the Second International on the task of socialist politics. The revisionist dispute, the “crisis of Marxism” in which Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky first cut their teeth, shaped their understanding of the unfolding revolution as a necessary expression of self-contradiction within the movement for socialism. Even the most revolutionary party produced its own conservatism, hence the need for self-conscious, revolutionary leadership to avoid “tailing” the movement. 

Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky thought that leadership adequate to the revolution of 1917 required historical consciousness. They drew upon Marx’s appraisal of the democratic revolutions of 1848, in which Marx identified the historical contradiction which had developed in bourgeois society and necessitated the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Bolsheviks maintained that a "bourgeois-democratic" revolution could spark a workers' socialist revolution in Europe, subsequently allowing for a struggle for socialism. Lenin held that political forms such as “the state” and “the party” must be transformed in and through revolution. Yet the meaning of 1917 was already contentious in 1924, as Trotsky recognized in his pamphlet, Lessons of October. Trotsky would spend the rest of his life fighting “over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International[s]” to maintain socialist consciousness.

Whether in the Popular Fronts of the 1930’s, the Chinese Communists in 1949, or the New Left of the 1960’s, the Left sought to understand itself – both positively and negatively – in relation to the aims and outcomes of 1917. The historical consciousness of its primary actors disintegrated into various oppositions: Lenin the Machiavellian versus Luxemburg the democratic Cassandra; socialism versus liberalism; authoritarianism versus libertarianism. Meanwhile, the futility of the politics shared by Lenin and Luxemburg has been naturalized. It is tacitly accepted that what Lenin and Luxemburg jointly aspired to achieve, if not already impossible a century ago, is certainly impossible today. The premises of the revolution itself have been cast in doubt.

Questions for the panelists:

  1. What were the aims of the 1917 Russian Revolution?
  2. What was the self-understanding of its Marxist leadership?
  3. How has the memory of 1917 changed in the course of the 20th century?
  4. Why does the legacy of 1917 appear arrayed in oppositions?
  5. Are we still tasked by the memory of 1917 today, and if so how?
  6. In what way, if any, does the present moment present a new opportunity to reassess 1917 and the self-understanding of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky?

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?”

Panelists:
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)