Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 4, 2010

History of the Marxist Internationals (part 5, Trotskyist origins)

Except for the people still committed to the Fourth International project and to varying degrees, there is little doubt that the it has been relegated to the dustbin of history. Given its dialectical–joined at the hip–association with the USSR, it is no surprise that the decline of Stalinism globally has made its mission problematic at best. However, there were clear signs that the movement to build a Trotskyist international was doomed from the outset. In this article I want to focus on its origins and in the next on how and why it has led to so many splits and so little influence. I say this as someone who spent more than ten years in the American section of the Fourth International (or at least one of the multiple movements owing its legacy to Leon Trotsky) anxious to help people understand why a different approach is necessary. All this is building up to some parting thoughts on Hugo Chavez’s call for a fifth international in the final post in this series.

To start with, it is necessary to understand why Trotsky broke finally with Stalin and his Comintern. Just as the Second International’s failure to oppose WWI prompted Lenin to build the 3rd international, the Communist failure to effectively challenge Hitler convinced Leon Trotsky that a new international was necessary. Up until Hitler’s triumph, Trotsky’s orientation was to the “left opposition”, a scattered band of people both inside and outside the USSR who supported Trotsky’s critique. Of course, Marxists who did not support his critique were condemned to fend for themselves. If you had agreed with Bukharin, for example, there would have been few compelling reasons to join a current you were ideologically at odds with. Leaving aside a myriad of other problems, the Trotskyist movement never questioned the wisdom of founding a world movement that grew out of a faction in Soviet Communism. The strongly doctrinal cast of the movement in its infancy would shape its trajectory in years to come—unfortunately.

Perhaps Trotsky had no other option except to create a new movement given the enormity of the disaster that Stalinism was responsible for. Needless to say, the Social Democracy was also at fault, but few people in the early 1930s had many illusions in the reformists’ ability to do much more than defend the immediate interests of trade union members.

In the late 1920’s, Stalin had embarked on an ultraleft course in the USSR and the C.P.’s tended to reflect this ultraleftism in their own strategy and tactics. In Germany, this meant attacking the Socialist Party as “social fascist”. The Socialist Party was not revolutionary, but it was not fascist. A united SP and CP could have defeated fascism and prevented WWII and the slaughter of millions. It was Stalin’s inability to size up fascism correctly that led to this horrible outcome.

In 1931 the Nazis utilized a clause in the Weimar constitution to oust a coalition government in the state legislature of Prussia. Prussia was a Social Democratic stronghold.  The Communists at first opposed the referendum, but their opposition took a peculiar form. They demanded that the Social Democrats form a bloc with them at once. When the Social Democratic leaders refused, the Communists put their support behind the Nazi referendum, giving it a left cover by calling it a “red referendum”. They instructed the working class to vote for a Nazi referendum.  The referendum was defeated, but it was demoralizing to the German working-class to see Communists lining up with Nazis to drive the Social Democrats out of office.

The first statement urging the formation of a Fourth International appeared in the Militant on September 23 September 1933. Signed by opponents of Stalin, The Declaration of Four on the Necessity and Principles of a New International made Germany into a litmus test:

The German events revealed with no less force the collapse of the Third International. Despite its fourteen-year existence, despite the experience gained in gigantic battles, despite the moral support of the Soviet state and the plentiful means for propaganda, the Communist Party of Germany revealed under conditions of a grave economic, social and political crisis, conditions exceptionally favorable for a revolutionary party, an absolute revolutionary incapacity. It thereby showed conclusively that despite the heroism of many of its members it had become totally incapable of fulfilling its historic role.

The position of world capitalism; the frightful crisis that plunged the working masses into unheard-of misery; the revolutionary movement of the oppressed colonial masses; the world danger of fascism; the perspective of a new cycle of wars which threatens to destroy the whole human culture – these are the conditions that imperatively demand the welding together of the proletarian vanguard into a new (Fourth) International. The undersigned obligate themselves to direct all their forces to the formation of this International in the shortest possible time on the firm foundation of the theoretical and strategic principles laid down by Marx and Lenin.

It was probably a harbinger of future developments that two of the four signatories would eventually drop out of the project to form a new international. Like Andres Nin and others who had initially gravitated to Leon Trotsky politically, they decided that a broader movement was necessary including ties with the Right Opposition in Russia made up of Bukharin’s supporters. The declaration, however, made it clear that it would not accept partial solutions of the “three and a half” variety:

No less energetically must be rejected the theory of the Austro-Marxists, centrists and left reformists who, under the pretext of the international character of the socialist revolution, advocate an expectant passivity with regard to their own country, thereby in reality delivering the proletariat into the hands of fascism. A proletarian party that evades the seizure of power under the present historic conditions commits the worst of betrayals.

The documents of the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938 can be read here. There you will also find some useful commentary including a 1946 article by John G. Wright (the party name of Joseph Vanzler, an American Trotskyist born of Jewish parents in Russia in 1902). Wright died at the age of 54, about a decade before I joined the SWP and I always heard him referred to in reverential terms. This was the first time I ever looked at his article on the formation of the Fourth International and a passage sticks out like a sore thumb in a way that it wouldn’t have when I was a Trotskyist militant. He writes:

One of Trotsky’s favorite sayings was: “It is not the party that makes the program; it is the program that makes the party.”

Precisely because of this primary stress on program, Trotsky’s decade of struggle to reform the Third International became in the most direct sense the preparation for the Fourth International.

This approach—and it is the only correct one—obviously invests ideas with extraordinary importance. Indeed we can say without any fear of exaggeration than none attach greater significance or power to ideas than do the revolutionary Marxists. Like Marx, Engels and Lenin, Trotsky regarded ideas as the greatest power in the world.

Lenin’s Bolshevik Party valued its ideas as its most potent weapon. Bolshevism demonstrated in action, in 1917, that such ideas, once embraced by the masses, become convened into an insuperable material force.

Here is how Trotsky formulated this approach in a personal letter to James P. Cannon:

We work with the most correct and powerful ideas in the world, with inadequate numerical forces and material means. But correct ideas, in the long run, always conquer and make available for themselves the necessary material means and forces.

Trotsky’s ideas derive their power from the same source as Lenin’s: both are the correct expression of the struggle of living forces, first and foremost of the liberationist struggle of the proletariat. They represent not only the product of profound theoretical analysis (without which it is impossible to understand reality) but also the unassailable deductions from the march of history for the last hundred years (that is to say, from 1848 when Marx and Engels first expounded the laws governing the movement of capitalist society).

There are ideas and ideas. As against the correct ideas of Marxism, there is also the power of the false ideas. The former serve the interests of progress, of the world working class; the latter only play into the hands of reaction and deal untold injury to workers all the oppressed and to society as a whole. False ideas, like correct ones, do not fall from the sky. They, too, express one of the living forces engaged in struggle, namely: the camp of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.

To start with, you will note that there is a much greater emphasis on ideas than you would expect normally from a revolutionary organization. You will also note that the program is practically synonymous with ideas. This is, of course, a formula for the launching of just about every “Marxist-Leninist” group, and Trotskyists in particular, ever since the 1930s. A set of ideas, or program, is identified and then you go out and recruit people to those ideas, in most instances through a newspaper like the Militant. Once you establish a nucleus of a vanguard party on those ideas, it will greatly enhance your changes for leading a revolution.

When I was having discussions with Peter Camejo in the early 1980s about a different way of thinking about these questions, he said something to me that I will always remember. He said that a program, or set of ideas, cannot exist in advance of a revolutionary struggle. It is the struggle itself that will help to shape the program. Activity (or praxis, to use a fancy word) is necessary to help clarify our ideas. There is a constant dialectical interaction between ideas and activity and to formulate a program based on “the march of history” in advance of such activity will inevitably lead to idealistic and sectarian problems. Of course, Peter said this with a lot more panache than I ever could but I think I am presenting them correctly. Here is another way to put it, something I heard from an old-timer who showed up for a talk by David Harvey to the Brecht Forum years ago. He said that the left should not get stuck in the position of the guy who once said that he planned to become a capitalist as soon as he could put together a couple of million dollars.

Probably the best thing—and the least idealistic—that came out of the founding conference was the Transitional Program, which had the merit of being grounded in the living struggles of the 1930s. This founding program was based on the need to avoid the minimalism of the Social Democracy and the kind of maximalism that the CP during its “third period” adhered to. Transitional meant that slogans would be based on the here and now but would have a logic that led to the question of which class would rule society. As Trotsky put it in his discussion of the sliding scale of wages, a demand very much in sync with conditions today, what might appear reasonable to the average worker is anathema to the bourgeoisie:

Under the menace of its own disintegration, the proletariat cannot permit the transformation of an increasing section of the workers into chronically unemployed paupers, living off the slops of a crumbling society. The right to employment is the only serious right left to the worker in a society based upon exploitation. This right today is left to the worker in a society based upon exploitation. This right today is being shorn from him at every step. Against unemployment, “structural” as well as “conjunctural,” the time is ripe to advance along with the slogan of public works, the slogan of a sliding scale of working hours. Trade unions and other mass organizations should bind the workers and the unemployed together in the solidarity of mutual responsibility. On this basis all the work on hand would then be divided among all existing workers in accordance with how the extent of the working week is defined. The average wage of every worker remains the same as it was under the old working week. Wages, under a strictly guaranteed minimum, would follow the movement of prices. It is impossible to accept any other program for the present catastrophic period.

Property owners and their lawyers will prove the “unrealizability” of these demands. Smaller, especially ruined capitalists, in addition will refer to their account ledgers. The workers categorically denounce such conclusions and references. The question is not one of a “normal” collision between opposing material interests. The question is one of guarding the proletariat from decay, demoralization and ruin. The question is one of life or death of the only creative and progressive class, and by that token of the future of mankind. If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. “Realizability” or “unrealizability” is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle. By means of this struggle, no matter what immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.

The problem for the Trotskyist movement is that the Transitional Program, as dynamic as it first appears, can become idealized in the hands of a sectarian group. For example, during the 1960s when the U.S. was boiling over with discontent over the war in Vietnam, the Workers League, a small group connected to Gerry Healy’s International Committee for the Fourth International, decided that “for a labor party” was a transitional demand around which all struggles should be subordinated. While the demand for a labor party did not occur in the Transitional Program in 1938, it had raised to that level in discussions between Trotsky and James P. Cannon in Mexico City that year. For the Workers League, it had become a mantra. They would show up at antiwar conferences in 1968 composed mainly of college students who knew little about the trade union movement and shriek at them for not voting in favor of their resolution. Now, nobody would say that the Workers League was the most crazy group in the Trotskyist movement (a topic taken up in my next post) but they were clearly in the running, the “sweet sixteen” to put it in NCAA terms (go, Butler).

Not having read the Transitional Program for perhaps 35 years, I took a fresh look at it this morning in order to help me prepare this post. I was startled to see a section titled Against Sectarianism that must have missed my attention in the past. But it must have been on Peter Camejo’s mind when he wrote an article with the same title in the early 1980s analyzing the SWP’s problems. I was struck by Trotsky’s conclusion, made just after his dismissal of his “centrist” opponents, the worst offenders:

However, sectarian tendencies are to be found also in our own ranks and display a ruinous influence on the work of the individual sections. It is impossible to make any further compromise with them even for a single day. A correct policy regarding trade unions is a basic condition for adherence to the Fourth International. He who does not seek and does not find the road to the masses is not a fighter but a dead weight to the party. A program is formulated not for the editorial board or for the leaders of discussion clubs, but for the revolutionary action of millions. The cleansing of the ranks of the Fourth International of sectarianism and incurable sectarians is a primary condition for revolutionary success.

With those words in mind, I wonder what Trotsky would have made of the movement based on his ideas—the topic of my next post.


  1. I can’t wait for the next post. I’d like to hear more about how Jack Barnes expelled all the members of the SWP who initiated the “Proletrian Orientation” in the early 70’s, when anti-war students from the YSA 9as opposed to workers from trade unions) were overwhelming the party, then only a few years later actually adopted the same idea but in Draconian spades, forcing it down all the party members’ throats like some Stalin; or how he initially came to the conclusion the Iranian Revolution was socialist, and finally, for conclusive proof of his abject insanity, how he concluded East Germany was still a workers’ state 10 years after the fall of the Berlin wall.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 4, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

  2. I am enjoying these posts a great deal. Its been 20 years since the fall of the USSR and since I joined the revolutionary left. At the time there was a great deal of re-thinking going on in which everyone (who didn’t just leave) eventually seemed to conclude that they had been right all along. Now it seems like we are starting to get to the point that we can really examine the history.

    I am working on the biography of an 80 year old communist, former rank and file activist with the CPA, its amazing the work they did and depressing how much the dead hand of the ‘Russian Model’ held them back. I am thinking not so much of its policy prescriptions but because it was seen as the ‘One True Model’ of how revolution could be done.

    Comment by Shane H — April 5, 2010 @ 1:05 am

  3. Indeed it was “depressing how much the dead hand of the ‘Russian Model’ held them back” — and Trotsky wrote a lot about this phenom — the most compelling being the case of Stalin’s perfidy during the Spanish Revolution.

    As he wrote in 1937: “The tragic experience of Spain is a terrible – perhaps final – warning before still greater events, a warning addressed to all the advanced workers of the world. “Revolutions,” Marx said, “are the locomotives of history.” They move faster than the thought of semi-revolutionary or quarter-revolutionary parties. Whoever lags behind falls under the wheels of the locomotive, and consequently – and this is the chief danger – the locomotive itself is also not infrequently wrecked.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 5, 2010 @ 4:49 am

  4. Karl: I think the US SWP would also conclude that state forms of property are still dominate in the Peoples Republic of China (including the nationalization of the banks and a monopoly on foreign trade), even though Honk Kong would be an exception to the rule. Thus, one state with territories within that state that have different economic foundations, not unlike certain areas of Germany, even today. Also, I don’t think the SWP ever concluded that the Irainian Revolution, which unfolded in the late 1970’s, was socialist, or that the regime that came into being as a result was socialist, although they certainely believed that it had the potential to move in that direction, at least in it’s early stages. And I think you meant to say Farrell Dobbs, not Jack Barnes, in relation to the “P.O.” puddle of the very early 1970’s. And thus concludes my one and only post on the SWP for the calender year 2010.

    Comment by Dave — April 5, 2010 @ 11:15 am

  5. I see Dave is still out there defending a madman.

    No wonder he’ll only post once a year on the SWP — it’s too embarassing to post more than that.

    BTW it was indeed Barnes, not Dobbs, that booted out the P.O. in 1975 and then in the late 70’s adopted a ridiculously draconian version of that same P.O. that made life truly miserable for members like Proyect.

    That set of purges was the beginning of the end of a once proud & vibrant but now humiliated & dull working class organization that has had absolutely zero measurable positive effect in the class struggle for the last 1/4 century.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 5, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

  6. I’m not sure if Comrade Karl was a member of the SWP in 1978 when the turn was implemented by the unanimous consent of the National Committee and by the near unanimous consent of the party convention in 1979, but I was. I remember the vast majority of the membership being quite excited about carrying out the policy (and the resultant large pay increases that acompanied a job in industry) and did so freely. Of course, there were those who didn’t feel comfortable doing so, or who considered the entire venture a huge mistake, and some of them resigned. But some of them didn’t resign as well, and remained at their previous places of employment. But there wasn’t anything “draconian” about it, as far as I can remember. It was voluntary and remained so until the mid-1980’s (with those still in college and those already holding membership being exempted), but all of this was clearly understood by those who were becoming candidate members. It was also at this time that the auxillary organization was formed to accomadate those who desired to build the party, but were not willing to carry out the rather stringent — perhaps too stringent — norms of membership.

    I stand corrected on the P.O. timeline, although I don’t recall mass expuslions. In any event, it was the National Committee, which included individuals who would form new organizations in the early 1980’s, that were responsible for determing the course of the party in realtion to the P.O. comrades.

    My relucatnce to post on the SWP is not a matter of embarrassment, I assure you, but rather out of respect to Louis Proyect, who, I’m sure, does not desire a long, drawn-out discussion of the SWP on his Website. Last word is yours, if you so desire.

    Comment by Dave — April 5, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

  7. The “turn” meant obstensibly a re-orientation toward the working class, particularly in the factories and unions, since prior to the turn the Vietnam War attracted so many students, many of whom harbored reformist fantasies, and diluted the working class character of the party.

    The “Proletarian Orientation” (essentially the same thing as the “turn”) — was proposed 6 or 7 years before the “turn” by skilled & dedicated cadre who foresaw the dangers of a working class party dominated by college students. For that they were 1st ostrasized as a dangerous faction and then purged en masse. This was just the beginning of purges to come.

    Emulating Stalin, Barnes consolidated his grip on power, manipulated the party leadership, then adopted the very same P.O. that he expelled members for proposing just a few years earlier, except he implemented it the insensitive, ham-fisted way that typified Jack Barnes’ schizoid leadership.

    Trotsky would spin in his grave if he knew how the party was steered into the rocks after that.

    But because there was still some nationalized property & banks in East Germany 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall it was still a workers’ state!

    Sure it was. And Yeltsin, seeings how there was still so much nationalized industry in Russia after Perestroika, lead a workers’ state for a few years too, despite the Czarist flag waving atop the Kremlin!

    As far as nationalized banks, hell, Uncle Sam almost did that 2 years ago.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 5, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

  8. Many of the criticisms here echo those of the late Duncan Hallas in his book, “Trotsky’s Marxism.”

    I agree with you and Camejo on the issue of ideas vs practice. For example: how could the Bolsheviks call for “All Power to the Soviets” before the working class invented them? We would also do well to remember the Bolsheviks entered the 1917 with a faulty theory – the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. Ultimately, their political practice in the workers’ movement provided the material basis for correcting (or clarifying) their political theory, adopting Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution in practice.

    Comment by Binh — April 5, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

  9. So what is the cure for Trotskyist hair-splitting? Don’t the arguments that seem trivial in retrospect often still attach to threads of deeper meaning with signficant cultural and programmatic differences? Is the idea to create organizations with a narrower basis of unity with greater internal divergences?

    One of the reasons I became a Trotskyist–I wouldn’t today–was a certain attention paid to detail: Stalinists might say, “Look at our beautiful victorious struggle!” And Trotskyists would rejoin, “But wait, here you sold out trade unions, here you crushed democracy, here you made an unprincipled alliance, here you covered up a significant defeat, here you tried to silence people who pointed these things out.”

    Comment by ish — April 5, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

  10. Ooops “narrower” should read “broader.” I’ve made a sectarian slip!

    Comment by ish — April 5, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

  11. »It is the struggle itself that will help to shape the program.«

    Who would have thought?

    »The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.«

    Comment by Wu Ming 1138 — April 5, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

  12. Good information, thanks for your work.

    Comment by purple — April 6, 2010 @ 6:23 am

  13. “One of the reasons I became a Trotskyist–I wouldn’t today–was a certain attention paid to detail: Stalinists might say, “Look at our beautiful victorious struggle!” And Trotskyists would rejoin, “But wait, here you sold out trade unions, here you crushed democracy, here you made an unprincipled alliance, here you covered up a significant defeat, here you tried to silence people who pointed these things out.” ”

    – ish

    …And then the Stalinist would take his Nagant pistol and blow out your brains.

    Comment by Strelnikov — April 6, 2010 @ 8:36 am

  14. Oh really, Strelnikov! That’s what the Stalinists would do? Use your Nagant pistols. Then where were all you bungling cowards when Gorbachov & Yeltsin & Company needed shot? Nowadays the only pistols used in Russia are by the gangsters that run the cabals that run the whorehouses who trade off state property for heroin & cocaine then sell off MIG 19’s, the collective sweat & wisdom of Soviet labor, for $10,000 dollars. Bunch of fucking incompetent jackasses — you really were the gravediggers of the revolution.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 6, 2010 @ 11:08 am

  15. `With those words in mind, I wonder what Trotsky would have made of the movement based on his ideas—the topic of my next post.’

    Similar to Marx when he was confronted by the manglers of his ideas no doubt he would say `if these are Trotskyists then I’m no Trotskyist’.

    Comment by David Ellis — April 6, 2010 @ 11:23 am

  16. Ish, I would argue that a general statement of principles (reform or revolution, that kind of thing) is necessary, rather than super-detailed demands like sliding scales of wages/hours, arming workers and putting workers’ units under union control, which are contained in the Transitional Program of 1938. To my knowledge these demands never got any traction even in the areas of the workers movement where the Trotskyists had major influence. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong on that.)

    Rejecting the idealist notion that the ideas will conquer and create a vanguard party does not necessarily entail rejecting tried and true political principles (anti-capitalism, opposition to imperialist wars, for democracy). The problem is that the Trotskyist movement elevated every political difference on any question facing revolutionaries in any country into a question of principal and a question of “the program,” which apparently was holy writ.

    Comment by Binh — April 6, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

  17. I’m not sure how to take Strelnikov’s wishes for my martyrdom… I’ll choose the high road that this was meant as a sarcastic quip rather than Karl Friedrich’s presumption. Nevertheless it’s fair enough to suggest that the differences between Trotskyists and Stalinists are not just so much water on the bridge: there is indeed a lot of blood under that bridge. How to proceed then without holding grudges or repeating the worst mistakes and betrayals?

    Comment by ish — April 6, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

  18. I think it depends upon which trotskyist movement you’re talking about.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — April 6, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

  19. Michael, surely the only CORRECT one!

    Comment by ish — April 6, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

  20. “To start with, you will note that there is a much greater emphasis on ideas than you would expect normally from a revolutionary organization. You will also note that the program is practically synonymous with ideas. This is, of course, a formula for the launching of just about every “Marxist-Leninist” group, and Trotskyists in particular, ever since the 1930s. A set of ideas, or program, is identified and then you go out and recruit people to those ideas, in most instances through a newspaper like the Militant.”

    So what’s wrong with a new organization trying to establish something like the Eisenach, Gotha, and Erfurt Programs and thereafter organize the class around it? They were, how shall I say, “programming class struggle and social revolution.”

    The problem with Trotskyist attempts at a program is that they have to make special mentions of things like “permanent revolution” and “degenerated workers state,” rather than focus on the core elements, to quote Kautsky:

    1) An analysis of present-day [class] society and its development;
    2) The objects [basic principles];
    3) The means which are to lead to the realization of these objects [spread between basic principles and a Marxist minimum program for the DOTP];
    4) Demands which the [party] makes of present day society.

    Even I’m not tempted to make any mention at all of “Blocs of Dispossessed Classes and Nationalist Petit-Bourgeoisie” for Third World countries, since the Iron Law of Disproportionate Immiseration is fundamentally more important and universal.

    Comment by Jacob Richter — April 7, 2010 @ 1:24 am

  21. Ish, you were correct; I was (brutally) referencing how the Stalinists acted towards any dissent within the Bolshevik Party/CPSU from roughly 1929 to 1940, and not threatening you personally. The USSR would have been better off with Trotsky as Lenin’s successor and Stalin in charge of running sewage lines into Irkutsk or overseeing the Chinese part of the Trans-Siberian Railway than what actually happened: rivers of blood, mounds of bodies, and the first Worker’s State destroyed in 70 years, with the sucessor Russian state run by an ex-bluecap (Putin.)

    olshevik Party/CPSU from roughly 1930 to 1940, and not threatening you personally.

    Comment by Strelnikov — April 7, 2010 @ 6:14 am

  22. It seems to me that the problems go right back to the founding of the Left Opposition. Trotsky missed the boat in oppositional terms. In the early 1920s he had the support of the 3 Ws in Poland, Souvarine then a leader of the French CP, and many more, but he refused to take the fight to the bureaucracy, denounced his supporters, consider how rude he is about everyone who fought for him, Eastman, Souvarine, Serge, Ciliga etc. even refusing to speak on the question of the platform of the 46 at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern for example.
    Its at this point that the narrow, sectarian, ideological focus of “Trotskyism” developed. Refusing to take the struggle to the Russian working class, it became a literary critique of the bureaucracy, more and more marginalised as the Stalinists consolidated themselves and moved away from revolution. By 1934 when he decided the Comintern was dead for revolution he was already over ten years too late. Ciliga makes this point in his book reporting on the debates inside the gulag amongst the various oppositional trends;

    “The Left-wing extremists were mainly of Solntsev’s opinion. They considered the Trotskyist movement incapable of breaking entirely away from the bureaucracy, for it was nothing else but a ‘Left and more Liberal wing of that same bureaucracy’. Tiunov, a supporter of Miasnikov wrote: “It is an Opposition of high officials. In respect of the bureaucratic autocracy, Trotsky’s Opposition is as rotten as that of Milyukov in the days of Czarist autocracy.”
    The Decists argued that Trotsky still wavered between true revolutionary Bolshevism and its official and bourgeois caricature, just as he had remained undecided before 1917 between true Bolshevism and the Mensheviks.” Chapter 5

    Now hindsights a wonderful thing, and its easy to see why Trotsky, the leader of the army, Commissar for War, organiser of the insurrection, could not in the early 1920s understand just how far outside of the loop he was in terms of the apparatus, but it does nonetheless explain a lot.

    Comment by bill j — April 7, 2010 @ 8:36 am

  23. Apologies to Strelnikov for misunderstanding his sacrcasm.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 7, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

  24. Jacob: “So what’s wrong with a new organization trying to establish something like the Eisenach, Gotha, and Erfurt Programs and thereafter organize the class around it?”

    I think you answered your own question by explaining why the Trotskyists come up with something different than, for example, the Erfurt Program. For James P. Cannon, the “program” was almost a catechism that included positions on a myriad of historical and international questions. By contrast, the Erfurt Program was much more like the demands put forward in the Communist Manifesto. You can read the Erfurt Program at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1891erfurt.html.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 7, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

  25. #22 `It seems to me that . . . ‘

    Billj: And that is the problem with you. Your analysis is always about how it `seems’ to you.

    Trotsky never strayed from a Marxist analysis and I would challenge anybody to actually show where he did. Unfortunately, his followers weren’t able to use that method to develop new perspectives in the changed objective situation after the Second World War. They mistook perspectives for predictions and whilst his perspectives are proving more correct by the day they needed modifying in the wake of the post war settlement. Marx and Engels were clear that 1848 was replete with revolutionary potential but after the defeats had set in and capitalism found a new inner momentum they semi-retreated from sectarian demands for immediate revolution in favour of theoretical clarification until about 1869 when they soughted out the sectarians that had ruined the 1st International and set about building the 2nd. Pity the post war sects were not capable of an objective analysis but were interested in creating their own little worlds.

    Comment by Flubberlubberlubalot — April 7, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

  26. Louis and all, feel free to check out my work online, courtesy of Paul Cockshott’s hospitality:


    “J Richter, this is an attempt to update the classical ideas of German Social Democracy as expressed in the Erfurt Programme and apply them to the present day.”

    Comment by Jacob Richter — April 8, 2010 @ 12:40 am

  27. Karl Friedrich you are justified in your anger; the Stalinists destroyed the possibility for the USSR to have a Party where important things could be discussed, a Party that had some flexibility in how it ran the country, and one without a strong “leader cult” or fear from the Tcheka/GPU/NKVD/KGB (which should have been a foreign spying outfit ONLY and not a mishmash of the CIA/FBI/Gestapo.) “Socialism in one country” stunted the USSR and made foreign CPs into the Soviet Union’s flunkies/peanut gallery and not equals with the CPSU. BTW, the MiG-19 was a cruddy plane*; you must be thinking of the MiG-21, the only Soviet interceptor in service with the North Vietnamese Air Force that could down the USAF’s B-52 bombers….the plane is so good the type is still being used by non-NATO airforces to this day.


    * It was a “stretched” MiG-17 that had two jet engines side-by-side inside the tube-like body of the plane….certainly it was the first Soviet supersonic fighter (i.e. it flew slightly faster than 650 mph; Mach 1) but the engine layout was dangerious (they put a fuel tank above and between the powerplants and it would possibly explode from overheating) and the plane acted poorly if one engine was running faster than the other thanks to an air inlet design poorly suited for sub- to supersonic flight (the fix was included in the design of the MiG-21; a conical “air splitter” that also housed the radar antenna.) Despite these flaws the NVAF flew these planes against the USAF and USN fighters and fighter/bombers along with the older MiG-17, and by late in the war the 19s were relegated to strafing attacks while the 17s were used as dogfighters against the F-4s even though they lacked missiles and the American planes had missiles and guns.

    Comment by Strelnikov — April 8, 2010 @ 1:05 am

  28. One thing I’ve found on YouTube is that there are Stalinists there who are open to argument and debate. I’ve met one guy who left the CPUSA because he fought against backing Democrats, failed, and resigned in disgust. Other young revolutionaries are joining the CP because there is literally no other game in town where they live. These people are sincere and ardent revolutionaries, and we need to find a way to engage them but not water down where we stand on the USSR.

    I agree with Bill J regarding Trotsky. On a personal level, he was serious jerk and that hindered building an opposition where you’re working with handfuls of people (or less) just as much as his lack of clarity on the class nature of the enemy he was up against (the bureaucracy). I really want to read Ciliga’s book. Lastly, I would argue that Trotsky did stray from a Marxist analysis of the USSR because he made the form of property the determining factor in his analysis of the USSR and the role of the bureaucracy, whereas a Marxist analysis begins with the social relationships that govern production and distribution, but that is a whole ‘nother can of worms not terribly relevant to this post.

    Comment by Binh — April 8, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

  29. You really hit the nail on the head, Lou. This is the problem with Trotskyism – it is too based on ideas, not on the organization of existing potentially revolutionary/progressive/whatever forces.

    In many ways it is similar to Christian sects. One believes in the Calvinistic notion, one is less so – one believes the scripture was inspired by one method, another believes another. With little need for a connection to reality, one can have all sorts of opinions and arguments with regards to this. Trotskyists are like this too. They have their little sect, which is the vanguard of the handful which contain the one, true, correct analysis. It is just like a religious sect. Tim Wohlforth alludes to the same thing in “The Prophet’s Children”.

    Actually, I myself turn it even further with your opinions on Iran. The truth is that nothing has changed much in terms of the who’s who from now to decades ago. Hitchens was a Trotskyist and saw the Soviet Union as Stalinist and evil. Now he sees Iran as islamofascist and evil. I mean, if someone sees the USSR as not up to their standards, then why would they ever, conditionally or not, support Iran’s autonomy and the like. Against these people are those who supported the USSR, Mao and the like back then, and today support the autonomy of North Korea, Iran, and whatnot. I think of Galloway’s speech in New York where he talked about how the Bloomsbury salons did not support James Connolly and company and the Irish easter rising. Of course, Ireland was economically and politically backward for the same reason Iran is today – imperialism. US liberals forced Mossadegh out in the 1950s, and now today whine about how backwards Iran is and spend their time focused on Iran instead of the US-backed murders in Honduras which they can do something about. This is why Chomsky is so rightfully revered – he is wise enough to keep his tongue about such things for the most part.

    Comment by A. Reader — April 11, 2010 @ 1:06 am

  30. > Hitchens was a Trotskyist

    Hitchens was more of a Cliffite who rejected Trotsky’s theory of the bureaucratically degenerated workers state and instead adopted the state-capitalist view.

    Regarding Trotsky’s errors, I think it’s important to be aware that everything which he did in the 1930s was predicated on the idea that a revolutionary crisis was approaching and would not be solved by a general war. That idea was fairly widespread among all sides of the political fence in the ’30s. Most everyone from William Z. Foster to Father Charles Coughlin would have sort of accepted the view that the Depression was likely to reassert itself after the war. In retrospect we can see today that a broad restructuring of capitalism took place after WWII which allowed the contradictions of capitaliism to be in large measure alleviated within the developed industrial world for several decades. Today we’re seeing those contradictions reassert themselves. But as long as that wave of post-WWII prosperity was running along there wasn’t much point in pretending to carry forward either a Trotskyist or even Stalinist type of politics such as had existed in the 1930s. For that matter, there wasn’t much for Syrom Thurmond or George Wallace to hope for either. The birth of the John Birch Society in the late 1950s basically reflects the way that many well-to-do Right-wingers coped with the fact that they were too comfortable to really enact their fantasies. If the Great Depression had reasserted itself after WWII (as many people expected it would) then a lot of those people who eventually joined the JBS would more likely have put white robes on and headed out at night to burn crosses on someone’s lawn. But with such a booming economy they were just too comfortable to go looking for trouble in this way, so they instead formed rackets like the JBS. Something parallel happened to affect the Left-wing of the lane, but in a different fashion. Trotsky had simply never written anything offering advice about how would-be Marxists should deal with extended prosperity in the developed world. For that matter, neither did Stalin.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — May 30, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: