Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 8, 2015

Assessing John Marot

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

John Marot

Although I am at somewhat of a disadvantage not having read Paul LeBlanc’s new biography of Leon Trotsky, my interest was piqued by John Marot’s review on the Jacobin website titled “Assessing Trotsky“. Marot teaches history at Keimyung University in Korea and like most of Jacobin’s contributors is an academic leftist. So is LeBlanc for that matter but he at least had the benefit of being trained in Trotsky’s ideas by men and women who had been mostly involved with building a revolutionary movement, even if it was undone by Trotsky’s poor understanding of party-building.

As a distinct oddity, Marot’s earlier article “Political Marxism and the October Revolution” can be downloaded from Academia.edu. Marot, one of Robert Brenner’s students at UCLA, raises the possibility that if Leon Trotsky had been a Political Marxist, the battle against Stalinism would have been more successfully waged. In my view, if Trotsky made the belief that capitalism arose in the British countryside a sine qua non for Marxism, he never would have been a leader of the Russian Revolution to begin with. More likely, he would have had a university post and given talks to the equivalent of HM conferences back then.

Marot’s Jacobin article covers three areas:

  1. Permanent Revolution
  2. Socialism in One Country
  3. The Russian Question

Let me now take them up.

Marot takes issue with the idea that the theory of permanent revolution had flowed organically from prior Marxist analysis:

Far from being original or innovative, Le Blanc holds that Trotsky’s perspectives flowed “naturally from the revolutionary conceptualizations inherent in the analyses and methodology of Marx himself.” However, there are reasons to doubt this.

Trotsky’s perspectives on the Russian Revolution were unique. No one else shared them — not Marx, not Lenin, not Luxemburg, not Kautsky, not Parvus, not Riazanov, not Mehring — even though all were intimately familiar with Marxist methodology.

Though Le Blanc argues otherwise, there was only one version of permanent revolution — Trotsky’s. No one else adhered to Trotsky’s analysis of the coming Russian Revolution: that only workers could overthrow Tsarism and that as a result the democratic revolution in Russia would have to be a proletarian-socialist one, not a “bourgeois-democratic” one.

Isn’t Marot aware that it was Marx himself who coined the term permanent revolution and that even though it was applied to Germany could have easily applied to Russia as well? This is from the Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League in London, March 1850:

While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible, achieving at most the aims already mentioned, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far – not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world – that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers. Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one.

You can find the same sorts of formulations in the 1848 article “The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution“:

The German bourgeoisie developed so sluggishly, timidly and slowly that at the moment when it menacingly confronted feudalism and absolutism, it saw menacingly pitted against itself the proletariat and all sections of the middle class whose interests and ideas were related to those of the proletariat.

Furthermore, late in life Marx corresponded with Russian populists who were moving in his direction, the very same people who were troubled by a tendency in a more orthodox Marxism that posited the need for a capitalist stage prior to socialism. This was the view of Plekhanov, Kautsky and Lenin, who considered himself a disciple of the two “stagist” theoreticians.

In letters to Zasulich, Marx urged a struggle to preserve the Russian peasant communes, an economic institution that both predated capitalism and that was threatened by it. In the preface to the 1882 Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels came pretty close to formulating their own version of permanent revolution:

The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina, though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.

Marx and Engels of course did not have the same exact perspective that Trotsky had in 1905 for the simple reason that Russia had not achieved the same level of industrialization. That being said, it strikes me as pretty obvious that Trotsky was simply extending an analysis that could be found in the writings of Marx and Engels to begin with. If you advocate “the common ownership of land” in Russia in 1882, there’s little possibility that you will be mistaken for Plekhanov.

Turning now to the question of “Socialism in One Country”, Marot faults Trotsky for not siding with the Right Opposition to Stalin in the late 1920s. Since Trotsky was supposedly a diehard enemy of the kulaks and an advocate of rapid industrialization, it was inevitable that Stalin, who appeared superficially to be adopting the Left Opposition program even if he was imposing it bureaucratically, made a sucker out of Trotsky. Marot writes:

Trotsky’s view of the Right Opposition as capitalist-roaders was fantasy. So was his view that Stalin was a centrist, perpetually tossed now to the right, now to left, and incapable of striking out on his own to become the head of a new ruling class. He never came to terms with his utterly mistaken appraisal of Stalin’s politics, itself founded on a profoundly erroneous analysis of the bureaucracy as a non-class phenomenon, a “caste.” This confounds Le Blanc’s assertion that Trotsky always admitted to errors of political judgment.

Trying to sort out the inner-party fights of the 1920s is easy to do in 2015. Hindsight is always 20/20. However, little good would have come out of Trotsky aligning with the Right Opposition since by 1927 at least, the Soviet Union’s political arena had been strangled to death. Whether you were a Rightist like Tomsky or Bukharin, or a Leftist like Trotsky, you simply could not get a hearing. The bureaucracy had lined up behind Stalin and would be ready to follow his every twist and turn. When a united opposition to Stalin emerged that consisted of all the Old Bolsheviks who believed in party democracy whatever their differences about economic policy, it was scattered to the wind by goons beholden to Stalin.

John Marot turns these fights into something like a debate at an HM Conference when in fact they had much more in common with “The Sopranos” on HBO.

Finally, on the “Russian Question”, Marot complains that Trotsky had a sectarian tendency that weakened the left:

Trotsky made a litmus test of the “Russian Question” in his dispute with Max Shachtman, leading to a split in the American Socialist Workers Party in 1939-40 and, later, abroad as well. Trotsky’s actions — which Shachtman thought were sectarian — made even more difficult the SWP’s already fiendishly difficult struggle to gain a foothold, however modest, in the American labor movement.

I quite agree with this. Over twenty years ago I came to similar conclusions:

Soon after the split from the SP and the formation of the Socialist Workers Party, a fight broke out in the party over the character of the Soviet Union. Max Shachtman, Martin Abern and James Burnham led one faction based primarily in New York. It stated that the Soviet Union was no longer a worker’s state and it saw the economic system there as being in no way superior to capitalism. This opposition also seemed to be less willing to oppose US entry into WWII than the Cannon group, which stood on Zimmerwald “defeatist” orthodoxy.

Shachtman and Abern were full-time party workers with backgrounds similar to Cannon’s. Burnham was a horse of a different color. He was an NYU philosophy professor who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He reputedly would show up at party meetings in top hat and tails, since he was often on the way to the opera.

Burnham became the paradigm of the whole opposition, despite the fact that Shachtman and Abern’s family backgrounds were identical to Cannon’s. Cannon and Trotsky tarred the whole opposition with the petty- bourgeois brush. They stated that the workers would resist war while the petty-bourgeois would welcome it. It was the immense pressure of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia outside the SWP that served as a source for these alien class influences. Burnham was the “Typhoid Mary” of these petty-bourgeois germs.

However, it is simply wrong to set up a dichotomy between some kind of intrinsically proletarian opposition to imperialist war and petty-bourgeois acceptance of it. The workers have shown themselves just as capable of bending to imperialist war propaganda as events surrounding the Gulf War show. The primarily petty-bourgeois based antiwar movement helped the Vietnamese achieve victory. It was not coal miners or steel workers who provided the shock-troops for the Central America solidarity movement of the 1980’s. It was lawyers, doctors, computer programmers, Maryknoll nuns, and aspiring circus clowns like the martyred Ben Linder who did.

The only thing I would add is that NYU Marxist professors have always been suspect. Back in Burnham’s day it was the philosophy department, now it is the sociology department. My recommendation is to young people seeking to become revolutionaries is to avoid graduate school entirely. A PhD will only serve to earn you an adjunct position or a miserable life as an expatriate teaching in someplace like South Korea. You are better off teaching high school or being a web developer. Not only will you be able to avoid food stamps, you’ll have your self-respect.


  1. changing his view about permanent revolution would not have saved Trotsky from Stalin like Marot claimed. One of the main things that would have saved Trotsky would have been recognizing early on that Stalin was a psychopathic mastermind political operative.

    Years after losing the nation, Trotsky still thought Stalin was an ignoramus, uncultured, etc. What he missed is that just because someone has his dog clean his dishes during his Siberian exile doesn’t mean he is politically unskilled or secretly an educated person. This should have been Proletarianism 101 for Trotsky. Stalin was actually a Georgian poet in his younger years but deliberately tried to cover this up, along with his mafia/informant past.

    Comment by Raccko (@racckoff) — November 8, 2015 @ 10:22 pm

  2. If someone thinks that rejecting Permanent Revolution is the thing that would have stopped Tsarist or Stalinist autocracy in Russia, this is making the same kind of ivory tower opposition to Stalin.
    If you reject Permanent Revolution, they you are basically stuck supporting Kerensky, if not his predecessors, leaving the door open to full blown counterevolution like they had in Finland in 1917-1918. That’s because there actually was an attempted counterrevolution against the incompetent Kerensky by General Kornilov. Russia and Petrograd without Trotsky’s permanent revolution theory would not have been so much different, perhaps. The problem with Russia wasn’t really Socialism or no Socialism per se (the question of permanent revolution), it was whether they could have democracy or autocracy.

    Comment by Raccko (@racckoff) — November 8, 2015 @ 10:30 pm

  3. Marot is right that no other Second International Marxists shared Trotsky’s understanding of what “permanent revolution” meant. Check the essays collected in Witness to Permanent Revolution (Haymarket, 2011). None of the writers in that volume share Trotsky’s interpretation of that term and what it meant for Russia.

    Or just read Rosa Luxemburg in 1906, whose idea of what a Russian Revolution could be was no different from Kautsky’s or Lenin’s at the time:

    “Concretely, after the fall of tsarism, power will pass into the hands of the most revolutionary part of society, the proletariat, because the proletariat will take possession of all posts and keep watch over them until power is placed in the hands of those legally called upon to hold it – in the hands of the new government, which the Constituent [Assembly], as the legislative organ elected by the whole population, is alone able to determine. Now, it is a simple fact that it is not the proletariat that constitutes a majority in society, but the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry, and that, as a consequence, it will not be the social democrats who form a majority in the Constituent, but the democratic peasants and petty bourgeois. We may lament this fact, but we will not be able to change it.”


    Comment by jschulman — November 9, 2015 @ 12:00 am

  4. Marot is right that no other Second International Marxists shared Trotsky’s understanding of what “permanent revolution” meant.

    I always thought that Engels was a Second International Marxist.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 9, 2015 @ 12:09 am

  5. Do we have any idea if Engels shared Marx’s views on Russia? Or, if he originally did, that he still thought that they were valid by 1895, when he died?

    Marx had already said in 1877 that “If Russia continues to proceed along the path followed up to 1861, she will lose the finest opportunity that history has ever offered to a people, only to succumb to all the vicissitudes of the capitalist regime.” Source: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/ni/vol01/no04/marx.htm

    And Russia did proceed along that path. Common ownership of land leading directly to communism in Russia simply didn’t happen.

    So we have no way of knowing whether or not Marx would have advocated Trotsky’s version of permanent revolution or not.

    Comment by jschulman — November 9, 2015 @ 2:35 am

  6. I misread the part of your post that states that the 1882 introduction to the Communist Manifesto was written by Marx AND Engels. My bad. But I still don’t know what Engels thought about the matter between Marx’s death and his own death.

    Comment by jschulman — November 9, 2015 @ 2:39 am

  7. You are confusing Marx’s analysis of social development with his political goals. He was for a peasant-led revolution in Russia that could hook up with a worker-based revolution in Western Europe. That it failed does not mean that he was a “stagist”, nor does the failure of the USA to have had a proletarian revolution in the 1970s render invalid our work as Marxists to help bring that about.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 9, 2015 @ 2:41 am

  8. Based upon the Rosa quote above, was she a “stagist,” in your view? Was pre-1917 Lenin?

    Comment by jschulman — November 9, 2015 @ 4:01 pm

  9. I am not really familiar with Luxemburg’s writings on the character of the coming Russian Revolution but Lenin pre-1917 was most definitely a stagist.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 9, 2015 @ 4:07 pm

  10. Toujours en considérant notre recul de 2015. L’on peut imaginer qu’une opposition unie droite/gauche, aurait accrue la résistance à l’emprise stalinienne et cela aurait eu des conséquences politique qui auraient pu influencer les débats dans le Kominterm. L’opposition au stalinisme aurait été plus forte avec plus d’influence sur les soulèvements en Espagne et en France dans les années trente. Je pense que Boukharine avec une opposition unifiée aurait créé une nouvelle dynamique et lui redonné son esprit de combattant révolutionnaire. Cette bataille malgré qu’elle aurait été défaite, elle aurait imposé un prix plus élevé à Staline et offert une source d’inspiration au mouvement marxiste. Comme Boukharine, Cuba aujourd’hui sait qu’offrir une ouverture au marché capitalisme n’est pas un retour au Capitalisme, mais un moyen de survivre et gagner du temps face à l’impérialisme.

    Comment by André Doucet — November 9, 2015 @ 7:46 pm

  11. this may be good: Reconstructing Lenin – only ebook available as yet:
    http://monthlyreview.org/product/reconstructing_lenin/ you can get a bit of it free from amazon

    Comment by jp — November 10, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

  12. Sticking my neck out naively as usual–since the big revolutionary successes and failures of the 20th Century–the former U.S.S.R. and China–are now firmly capitalist, is it “stagist” to hope they will advance beyond this and once again–this time maybe permanently and for real–raise the flag of socialism?

    Putting it another way, if somehow the tide of twentieth-century history is reversed and the world at last homes in on socialism in a big way, will stagism have been in any sense vindicated?

    It would seem at least that until there is permanent revolution in Russia and China, there is no revolution. But does nothing at all remain of value as the legacy of Bolshevism in those places, apart from the literary and narrow historical legacy of Lenin, Bukharin, Trotsky, and a handful of others?

    Certainly from an American armchair one sees no sign of revolution breaking out anew in either country, though the Putinolaters of the pseudo-left seem to harbor a confused notion that, despite his lack of any discernible Marxist leanings, Putin in some way carries forward the hope and promise of Bolshevism.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — November 10, 2015 @ 10:08 pm

  13. I’d bet on China before Russia. There’s significant labor unrest in China. Nothing of note in Russia.

    Comment by jschulman — November 11, 2015 @ 12:35 am

  14. You’ve reduced the “Russian Question” to the faction fight with Shachtman, Abern and Burnham and your take on its proletarian vs. petty-bourgeois aspect and ignored the meat of Marot’s argument.

    Marot asks “What had changed about the structure of this state by 1933 that made revolution, not reform, the only way forward?” and answers himself that “Trotsky never convincingly answered this question, creating unending debate among his followers.” It’s always been my understanding that Trotsky’s call for political revolution in the USSR was not based on a change in the structure of the Soviet state but on the failure of Stalin, the Comintern and the German Communist Party to resist Hitler’s rise to power in Germany by uniting the CP-led section of the working class with the Social Democratic Party-oriented workers. Marot in fact praises Trotsky’s call for a united front of communists and socialists against the Nazis but then uses it to knock Trotsky for failing to do the same in the Soviet Union since “a similar call in Russia for Left and Right Oppositions to unite might have forestalled Stalin’s victory.” As you noted, Marot doesn’t seem to understand that the balance of forces in the SU in the late 20’s, where the Left and Right oppositions were both isolated from the working class, bore no resemblance whatsoever to a Germany in 1933 in which millions of workers were ready to join together to fight the Nazis.

    What Marot either doesn’t understand or disagrees with is Trotsky’s contention that while the political leadership of the USSR had shown itself to be not only criminally incompetent but utterly unreformable, state ownership of the means of production and central planning, that is, the Soviet state, were worth preserving. In other words, Trotsky argued that the choice in the Soviet Union was between political revolution that preserved the gains of the workers state while raising the workers back to political power on the one hand and out-and-out counter-revolution and the restoration of capitalism on the other. The “Russian Question” for revolutionaries outside of the Soviet Union was therefore, did one defend the USSR militarily especially since it was a workers state, no matter how degenerate and corrupt it had become, or did you defend it just as you would oppose any imperialist aggression against a non-imperialist country? Was a USSR beset by Nazi Germany and the British, French and Japanese empires precisely because it threatened their hold over their workers and the working classes of their colonies of no more significance to the international working class than Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia or the bourgeois Spanish Republic, bleeding and torn though they were? Would the imperialist crushing of the USSR or the victory of internal counter-revolution in the Soviet Union mean no more to the cause of revolutionary socialism and the principle of proletarian independence than the fall of Ethiopia and Spain in the 30’s, the continuance of American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, the march of imperialism across the Middle East and South Asia over the last 25 years? Did Margaret Thatcher not aim her slogan “There is No Alternative” directly at killing the very ideas of socialism and solidarity and working class resistance? How can any Marxist revolutionary looking at the state of the world and the state of the Left today, with the full benefit of 20/20 historical insight, not conclude that Trotsky was right and Schachtman wrong, and that the loss to the world of the Soviet Union has been enormous and immeasurably more significant than any of the other defeats of the working class since 1991, and possibly since Hitler’s rise to power in 1933?

    Comment by cka2nd — June 5, 2016 @ 4:41 pm

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