Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 6, 2020

The Relevance of Trotsky’s Ideas Today

Filed under: Argentina,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Not long after I praised Left Voice and one of its editorial board members Juan Cruz Ferre in an article titled “Marxist alternatives to Jacobin”, Juan asked for my opinions on a video that his comrades in Argentina made titled “The Relevance of Trotsky’s Ideas Today”. What I am going to write in this article might surprise Juan, who surmised that “we have strong political differences, in particular with regards to the ‘Leninist’ organization.”

In fact, we don’t have “strong political differences” as far as I know, except for my support for Howie Hawkins’s presidential campaign and objection to Left Voice editor Nathaniel Flakin’s belief in the revolutionary potential of looting and arson, which is admittedly widespread on the left. Most everything else that Left Voice publishes is right on the money. For example, I just cross-posted Nathaniel’s “Could Hitler Have Been Stopped by Voting for the ‘Lesser Evil’?” to FB and Marxmail. He draws exactly the same conclusions that I drew in a 2016 article titled “Misusing German history to scare up votes for Hillary Clinton”.

Indeed, there’s not a single word in “The Relevance of Trotsky’s Ideas Today” that I would take exception to. Almost everything I write reflects the education I got in the SWP even if indirectly. For example, although Juan endorses the Brenner thesis, I rejected it on the basis of Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development that attempted to explain the contradictory nature of Czarist Russia, where feudal-like conditions in the countryside stood side-by-side with some of the most technologically advanced factories in the world. I simply applied that to the 16th century, when the nascent capitalist system in Europe relied on pre-capitalist modes of production to “take off”. Marx deals with this in chapter 31 of V.1 of Capital, after all. If Juan agrees with Brenner that capitalism developed in the British countryside and diffused to the rest of the world, who am I to quibble? Charles Post, another Trotskyist thinker, agrees with him as do many others. This should not get in the way of uniting around more important questions of how to overthrow capitalism today.

I would say that even on more contemporary questions where we differ, it boils down to how we apply Trotsky’s Marxism rather than on whether or not we are Trotskyist. (I am no purist, of course. Bukharin is my go-to guy on ecology.) As Juan told me, his group in Argentina split from Nahuel Moreno’s group over the Turkey-Armenia genocide. You can bet that both sides defended their stand on the basis of what Trotsky wrote. That’s fairly typical of the Trotskyist movement. Jeff Mackler, who recruited me to the Trotskyist movement in 1967, is an ardent supporter of Bashar al-Assad, while I have written over 250 articles denouncing Assad. It’s all a matter of interpretation.

Back in 1981, when I began working with Peter Camejo to develop a non-sectarian current in the USA, he told me that the most difficult question is how to define the parameters of a revolutionary organization. Some things would be obvious, like not backing capitalist parties but others were harder to pin down. For example, when I joined the SWP in 1967, anybody who defended Lenin’s “Revolutionary-Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry” would be shunned. But after Jack Barnes decided that Lenin’s theory trumped Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, you had to switch gears and line up with Barnes or else be shunned—even expelled. This has been the practice pretty much since the 1924 “Bolshevization” Congress of the Third International that was introduced by Zinoviev. Since then, every Leninist group has had splits over differences that should have never become litmus tests.

For Trotskyist groups, the program becomes the accumulation of all the party positions taken since its inception. Back in 1967, shortly after I joined, I asked a veteran party member up at SWP headquarters to define our program. He pointed to the shelves in our HQ bookshop and said, “That’s our program.” By contrast, the program in The Communist Manifesto, as well as the German Social Democracy’s Erfurt Program (that Lenin sought as a model for the Bolsheviks), was minimalistic. For example, “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.” That’s in the Communist Manifesto. Who could disagree with that, especially now?

I will return to these questions after saying a few things about “The Relevance of Trotsky’s Ideas Today” that I urge everybody to watch. This is a professionally made and totally engaging documentary that features Juan’s comrades in Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Brazil, Mexico and the USA talking about the relevance of Trotsky’s ideas to their country’s past and present. As they speak, you see the most amazing footage of Trotsky from his youth until close to the time of his death that I have never seen before, as well as photographs. In addition, there are also film clips and photos of some of the most important class battles of the 20th century, especially Spain in the 1930s.

There is no question that if Trotsky’s recommendations had been followed, especially in Germany, the world would look a lot different today. Unfortunately, the relationship of forces between the Trotskyist movement on one hand and Stalinism and Social Democracy on the other made this practically impossible. Emilio Albamonte is the leader of the Party of Socialist Workers in Argentina, Juan’s party. In the final half of the film, he quotes Isaac Deutscher who said this was a case of a tiny boat carrying an enormous candle.

Albamonte, who looks to be about my age, tries to summarize the rocky attempts to build a Fourth International without minimizing the setbacks. Mostly, he attributes this to objective circumstances, which is undeniable. After WWII, the Communist Parties became hegemonic because of the facts on the ground of Soviet “socialism” and because an inspiring peasant-led revolution in China had taken place under Communist leadership.

However, the narrow, nationalistic “socialism in one country” of both the USSR and China led to irresolvable contradictions that eventually led to a return to capitalism. A consequence of which included the collapse of pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing parties everywhere. This meant that Trotskyism finally had the possibility of winning workers to its banner by operating on a level playing field.

One can understand the optimism of Albamonte and the young people featured in the film. While Trotskyism lies in smoldering rubble everywhere else in the world, these comrades feel the wind in their sails. If you check the Wikipedia entry on the Left Fraction—Fourth International, you might conclude that they really have no competition. Furthermore, their flagship section, the Party of Socialist Workers in Argentina, dwarfs any Trotskyist group I know of. From Wikipedia:

The Socialist Workers’ Party has presence in several unions. They occupy seats in the leadership of the Buenos Aires subway union (AGTSyP), is part of the joint Multicolor slate that leads nine sections of the teachers’ union of the Buenos Aires Province (SUTEBA), they also were part of the opposition slate in the Buenos Aires Graphic Federation and is part of the union leadership in several graphic companies. The Violet slate (whose members include PTS militants and independent activists) is the main opposition slate within the telephone union (FOETRA), the PTS also leads the opposition slate in the food union (STIA), where it is part of the union leadership within the factories with the largest number of workers. Aside from its presence in unions and guilds, the PTS has an extensive presence within internal commissions and delegates in industrial companies (soapmakers, soda workers, metalworkers, steelers, etc.), services (railroad workers, aeronautical workers, etc.) and state and health workers, etc.

To some extent, this is a function of the historic legacy of Morenoism in Argentina that got a foothold no other Trotskyist party ever achieved. While Leon Trotsky was proud of the SWP’s role in organizing the Teamsters, it never came close to achieving Moreno’s success.

About 45 years ago, I led a faction fight in the Houston branch of the SWP that defended Moreno’s party, which was also called the Socialist Workers Party, rumored to be in homage to our own. The fight was over a working-class mass action perspective versus urban guerrilla warfare. In Argentina, Moreno had competition from Robert Santucho’s People’s Revolutionary Army that was carrying out bold actions such as kidnapping bankers for ransom, hijacking meat trucks and distributing the goods in working-class neighborhoods, etc. When I gave my pre-convention report to the branch, I emphasized how similar we were to Moreno. Like us, he was organizing mass actions. Of course, we were organizing middle-class students against the war in Vietnam and they were organizing factory sit-in’s. Our ties were based on a rejection of guerrilla warfare and not much else.

The bloc with Moreno ended later in the 70s and I can’t even remember the details. He went on to build a group called the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) that like so many Trotskyist groups descended into bitter faction fights, about which I know nothing. When I asked Juan what the fights were over, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s before my time.”

In 1988, the MAS split into 20 different groups, with Albamonte’s being the first to go. I have no idea if he learned painful lessons from that experience that made him and his comrades overcome the amoeba-like tendencies of most Trotskyist groups, but more power to them.

Frankly, nothing would make me happier than to see Left Voice reach a critical mass that would allow them to form a new group that might have the potential to grow rapidly. With the dissolution of the ISO, there is a real vacuum in the USA that is ready to be filled. Given the 1930s-like social and economic crisis that Albamonte alluded to in the film, people are looking for something with teeth in it rather than the gummy DSA. Even if the comrades failed to transcend their Zinovievist origins, they could still play a huge role in the class struggle. The SWP never had more than 2,000 members in the 1970s but you’d be surprised what a steel-hardened, zealous revolutionary group can get done under the right circumstances. Of course, when the 1970s turned into the time of disco, cocaine and polyester leisure suits, we sort of lost our way. Jack Barnes hoped to save our souls through the turn to industry but instead we lost our minds.

14 Comments »

  1. 1765 members as the height recruited as provisional members during Camejo’s ’76 campaign and made full members by March of ’77. It was all downhill from there…

    Comment by David Walters — October 7, 2020 @ 12:25 am

  2. LOUIS writes about LEFT VOICE:
    we don’t have “strong political differences” as far as I know, except for my support for Howie Hawkins’s presidential campaign and opposition to his fellow Left Voice editor Nathaniel Flakin’s belief in the revolutionary potential of looting and arson, which is admittedly widespread on the left. Most everything else that Left Voice publishes is right on the money.

    WALTER observes: LEFT VOICE, like most Trotskyists, favors the overthrow of the Cuban government in a “political revolution”. Indeed, according to LEFT VOICE, the Cuban leadership has done EVERYTHING WRONG since before they took power. A snipped from LEFT VOICE, though reading the whole thing will give show they think Castro was ALWAYS wrong. Providing a terrible example which must be fought, not emulated. Cuba has many problems and challenges, including internal political ones, but is Cube the tropical gulag LEFT VOICE describes:

    LEFT VOICE: Cuban worker state was created as a bureaucratic state that barred the workers and oppressed masses from all decision-making. As a result, immersed in a single-party regime, they had no possibility of seeing their interests represented. This situation is what has made possible the capitalist restoration in Cuba, a path also followed by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, where former state officials—yesterday’s bureaucracy—became today’s capitalists who held onto what remained of the former Soviet state.

    Cuba’s current course of capitalist restoration has reestablished diplomatic relations withUS imperialism and reintroduced the capitalist logic of supply and demand, leading a good portion of workers to instability. Examples of this include the introduction of a special second currency for tourists and the cuts to social benefits for the masses, both of which were imposed with no opposition by Raúl Castro and with Fidel’s approval, primarily affecting the Cuban people.

    Defend the revolution!
    Fidel Castro’s image is closely linked to the Cuban Revolution. In this sense, the historical and theoretical criticism of Castroism constitutes a key point to establish a defense of the Cuban Revolution. This means having an anti-capitalist opposition to the privileged bureaucracy and the restorationist policies in Cuba. It means fighting to defend the 1959 Revolution’s achievements and for a government of worker, peasant and soldier councils. A criticism of such a nature is rejected by those who defend the Cuban bureaucracy, who conceive that the revolution must generate a single thought and personality cult for the leader without any kind of differing opinions.

    This position is a copy of those who, before 1989, maintained that criticizing the Stalinist regimes of so-called “actual existing socialism” was playing into the counter-revolution’s hands. Thus, they covered up the monstrous crimes of the bureaucratic leaders against their people without preventing those same leaders from encouraging capitalist restoration, thus generating a new capitalist oligarchy. This sort of rhetorical sleight-of-hand, conflating criticism of the policies or decisions of the leadership with bourgeois attacks on the workers movement, and of conflating a country with its leadership, aims to stifle dissent. In this sense, instead of defending the revolution, what they did was smash any democratic debate and limit the role of the masses to a blind obedience to the leadership, their state and their party. The independent initiative of workers and peasants was liquidated, with their achievements put further at risk by an increasingly aggressive imperialism and a bureaucracy that encourages policies restoring capitalist relations.

    For this reason, a pivotal task of the working class is a political revolution that defends the achievements of 1959, that ends the bureaucracy and the army’s benefits, that hands real decision-making power to organs of direct democracy of the working and oppressed masses in Cuba so that the revolution’s fate answers to their necessities and interests.

    https://www.leftvoice.org/castro-the-cuban-revolution-and-the-permanent-revolution

    Comment by walterlx — October 7, 2020 @ 1:21 am

  3. Walter Lippmann has the nerve to condemn Left Voice for being counter-revolutionary when he has been defending the mass murderer Bashar al-Assad for the past 9 years. Because the Cuban press defends Assad, so must Lippmann. This is not solidarity, it is craven neo-Stalinist defense of a mafia state with the blood of a half-million on its hands.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 7, 2020 @ 1:30 am

  4. You are far more positive in your feelings about your experiences in the American YSA/SWP than I–and others–are, Louis. I joined the YSA in December, 1969 at Bard College after the collapse of our SDS chapter there. Yes, the Trots did some commendable anti-war, anti-imperialist work during “The Sixties” and early 1970s. But I resigned after the SWP 1979 Winter Plenum, and frankly, if I had to do it all over again, I would have left in 1974 when it began to become clear that Trotskyism is just another word for inward-looking sectarianism.

    We don’t need any more Trot sects. This country needs a mass, left/progressive/labor party that can actually take on the capitalist duopoly parties on many fronts. I have no problem with such a democratically-based party having various declared factions/tendencies in it—including Trotskyist tendencies. But absent a mass left opposition party, building little sects is a waste of time IMO.

    Comment by Kurt T Hill — October 7, 2020 @ 6:34 pm

  5. I agree that there is a lot of good political education in this amazingly well-made video insofar as it explains the paths of revolutionary continuity.

    But I am deeply troubled by how it condemns the Cuban revolution as another bureaucratic state seeking to carry out the counter-revolutionary and futile task of “building socialism in one country.” This just flies in the face of Cuba’s revolutionary internationalist history and the role it plays in world politics today.

    Cuba’s willingness to stake everything on the advance of the world revolution (as in the case of Angola, for example, but many, many others….carrying through to the medical internationalism of the Henry Reeve Brigades today) indicates a profound difference with ideas of “building socialism in one country.” It’s a tribute to the revolutionary convictions of the Cuban leadership that they have maintained their course for so many decades without receiving reinforcement through the taking of state power in another country. It’s certainly true that there may have been errors, although even that is an oversimplification if you consider the difficulties of overcoming Stalinist influence in a country so dependent on aid from the USSR. In the fight against “bureaucratism and sectarianism,” Cuba certainly showed its willingness to take on these problems in a political and revolutionary manner.

    The Transitional Program and other theoretical conquests of Marxism don’t have much meaning if those seeking to apply them can’t find their way into the most advanced fights of millions of workers. If the defense of a revolution like Cuba’s is not even mentioned as an important task. If the defense of Venezuela’s fight for self-determination (which is, of course, in no way on the same political plane as the conquest of power in Cuba, but which is a major battle ground nonetheless against U.S. imperialism) is passed over with the flick of a hand.

    There are a lot of reasons to disagree with Walter Lippman, who supports the Biden wing of the Democratic Party in addition to rationalizing defense of the Syrian government. But that doesn’t mean he can’t make a correct point, as he does in this discussion, pointing out the political weaknesses of Left Voice on this important test.

    Comment by Peter Seidman — October 8, 2020 @ 7:06 pm

  6. I don’t agree with Left Voice on Cuba or Venezuela for that matter but we have a real problem with a wide swath of the left defending a criminal dictatorship on the basis that the Cuban and Venezuelan press support Assad. We need to build a left that demonstrates solidarity with workers and peasants across the board. If Left Voice fails on one question, so does Lippmann, Workers World, the PSL, and Socialist Action fail on the other.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 8, 2020 @ 7:18 pm

  7. Walter Lippmann (that’s me), doesn’t “condemn” LV as “counter-revolutionary” as Louis writes. I simply highlighted their view that the leaders of the Cuban Revolution have done EVERYTHING WRONG, from the beginning, and right up to the present. That’s what their “analysis”, which I provided, makes obvious. Louis said he doesn’t “have “strong political differences” with LV. Their condemnation of the Cuban leadership, and their support to its OVERTHROW, despiteleading a living revolution right up to the present, demonstrates how Trotskyists generally view the Cuban Revolution. The Cubans don’t approve of US intervention in Syria. The Cubans are completely right about that.

    Walter Lippmann

    Comment by walterlx — October 8, 2020 @ 7:31 pm

  8. Well yes, certainly there is a “wide swath” of the “left” that has abandoned revolutionary critical thought and principles in worship of what they think is existing socialism. Walter is a good example, winding up not only with Assad, but Biden! Mark this up as another rotten legacy of Stalinism.

    Nonetheless, the defense of the Cuban revolution, the fight against sanctions on Venezuela, are tasks on a whole different level of importance. They are not just one of many possible errors. Listening to Emilio Albamonte reminded me a little of going to the Socialism 2018 Conference that I attended. There were a lot of good educationals and clearly serious activists, an inspiring panel of Red Shirt teacher activists and leaders that the ISO was clearly working with and won respect from. But a living revolution just off our shore that has punched way above its weight for 60 years and shifted the relationship of forces in so many parts of the world in favor of the workers and peasants…hardly a mention, and the mention made was awful. Good job on the teachers’ strike, but if you can’t do the same, making yourself blood and bone of such a revolution, you’re at the very least…very much in contradiction. How do you make a revolution if you can’t see one 90 miles away?

    Comment by Pete Seidman — October 8, 2020 @ 7:40 pm

  9. Walter, as I said, I disagree with Left Voice on Cuba. When I referred to political differences, I was referring mainly to the American class struggle. In any case, whatever the ISO or Left Voice ever said about Cuba, I don’t find it nearly as toxic as what you and Jeff Mackler have been saying for the last 9 years about Syria. Calling for a political revolution in Cuba is something of an abstraction since there are no real threats to Cuba except from the USA. When it comes to American bullying, both the ISO and Left Voice have been crystal clear: https://www.leftvoice.org/trump-increases-pressure-on-cuba

    Meanwhile, you make excuses for a dictatorship that uses chemical attacks, bombs hospitals, starves people into submission, and murders prisoners by the tens of thousands. To call this crypto-Stalinism would be generous. Instead, I would just call it craven worship of a mass-murdering, mafia state.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 8, 2020 @ 7:41 pm

  10. Sorry, Louis, you can’t find any quotes from me saying anything like what you say. Cuba is right to oppose US intervention in Syria. That’s the main issue.

    EVERYTHING the ISO used to say and EVERYTHING LV says about Cuba is tendentious, hostile, and argues that EVERYTHING the Cuban leadership has done is wrong. EVERYTHING. And, LV calls for the OVERTHROW of the Cuban government. They are typical ultra-left sectarians with an attractive web-presence and very good translations.

    Comment by walterlx — October 8, 2020 @ 7:50 pm

  11. Nonetheless, the defense of the Cuban revolution, the fight against sanctions on Venezuela, are tasks on a whole different level of importance.

    In fact, the SWP is one of the most outspoken and consistent “defenders” of the Cuban revolution but their defense, as well as Walter’s, has little impact outside of a small subset of the initiated. It is preaching to the choir, basically. Cuba’s need is for normalized economic relations that has been promoted much more by people outside of the cloistered “anti-imperialist” world. Like them:

    https://www.fb.org/issues/trade/us-agriculture-and-cuba/

    Comment by louisproyect — October 8, 2020 @ 7:55 pm

  12. Walter, I know that you love Cuba. But until you begin to come to grips with your love of Bashar al-Assad, there’s not much to discuss. I’ll take Left Voice and ISO over your propaganda for a mass murderer for the past 9 years any day of the week.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 8, 2020 @ 7:57 pm

  13. The Farm Bureau wants more business with Cuba. I’m all for that. Cuba’s MOST IMPORTANT NEED is for an end to the US blockade, which tries to strangle the Cuban economy and block all of its relations with the rest of the world.

    As shown repeatedly, you cannot find any quotes from me claiming what you say I say about Syria. No quotes. No proof. No nothing. It seems you think overthrowing the Syrian government is one of the most important tasks ON THE PLANET.

    End US intervention in Syria.

    Comment by walterlx — October 8, 2020 @ 8:04 pm

  14. You cannot find any quotes from me claiming what you say I say about Syria. No quotes.

    That’s because you are too feeble-minded to write the kind of bullshit that Jeff Mackler writes. Instead, you post links to the Cuban and Venezuela press backing Assad. Thank god you got purged from Marxmail long ago so we don’t have to put up with your slimy tactics.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 8, 2020 @ 9:55 pm


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