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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Some Thoughts on the (Problems of) Trotskyism


When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?"

-Allen Ginsburg (full text)

I'm posting this today to balance out yesterday's criticism of Anarchism. The deal with Trotskyism is this: The stuff Trotsky wrote is good and makes sense... Stalinism is clearly totally screwed up but that doesn't mean the revolutionary overthrown of capitalism is necessarily a bad idea. After all, how many hundred years of partially successful and failed bourgeois revolutions did it take to even establish today's basic capitalist democracies?

If this is the case, that "Trotskyism" represents a theoretical bridge to the pre-WWI generation of revolutionary socialists and attempts better than any one else to save it from the slander and lies of both Stalinist and Reformist "perversions" of marxism, then...

Why the hell is it that after all these years Trotskyist groups are still so small?

Why do they seem to split and quarrel with each other all the time?

Why have some "Trotskysists" been supportive of various clearly non-socialist, authoritarian governments?

"Trotskyism After Trotsky" is a good short book that was written by British socialist Tony Cliff in the late 1990s which attempts to answer these questions. It's a historical analysis of some of the problems this political tendency was from its inception beset with, which in many cases was never able to break out of.

"Trotskyism After Trotsky"

Start with the first, probably most important chapter: Chapter One: Recognizing the Problem

The Fourth International was founded just before the outbreak of World War Two as a revolutionary marxist association that opposed both Stalinism and Capitalism. However its membership was from the start confined to relatively small groups of people, as most socialist-minded workers and activists of the day were generally drawn to the larger and then-more prestigious Communist International (affiliated with "soviet" Russia) as well as Social-Democratic (reformist) parties of the day.

A major theoretical problem for this tendency presented itself immediately after the war when the economic collapse predicted by Trotsky did not occur, and regimes identical in structure to the Stalinist Soviet Union formed in the Russian- occupied, "Eastern Bloc" countries. Despite his harsh criticism of the tactics and rule of the Russian bureaucracy, Trotsky maintained to his death the hope that the Soviet Union could be reformed by a resurgence of worker militancy. The type of government represented by "Stalinism" was considered by him to be a "degenerated workers' state". Clearly, no bourgeoisie existed, so what else could it be called?

This ambiguous terminology was inadequate to describe the new societies in Eastern Europe. No workers' revolution had taken place... there was no "socialist" basis from which to degenerate. The Fourth International, a collection of various tiny groups, largely consisting of politically isolated individuals, and prone to splits and factionalism, was unable to come up with a solution to this theoretical problem.

Tony Cliff's political contribution was to write a book in 1948 called "The Class Nature of Stalinist Russia", which was later republished as "State Capitalism in Russia". Using a wealth of economic and social data, he argued that the bureaucracy collectively owned capital and related to the Russian working class in much the same way that individual Western capitalists related to their own workers.

An alternate theory that developed around the same time was that of Bureaucratic Collectivism. I read Cliff's book and it makes more sense to me than the Bureaucratic Collectivism theory does. How important is it to know which is a better theory? I'm not really sure. If you want to get all theoretical we could go to our books people wrote 50 years ago and pick up points and quote them... Though I'm not totally sure I care all that much about splitting hairs between the two to be honest.

Anyways, Cliff broke with the Fourth International and founded a small group around a newspaper in England, called the "Socialist Review" group. That went on to become the International Socialist Tendency which established branches in several different countries. The IST was able to enlarge itself during the 1960s and from the 1970s to the present, while much of the 60's Maoist and "Orthodox Trotskyist" groups have declined, the "International Socialists" actually grew (albiet modestly).

This all seemed fine and well.

But then, suddenly, the curse of Trotskyist splittery struck again. In the early 2000s there was a bit of a faction fight within the IST. The leading (British) group, the Socialist Workers' Party, felt that we were now in a period of "anticapitalist" upsurge. My understanding is they felt this meant it was time for socialists to throw themselves into the movement, with the task of building a separate socialist organization taking a backseat. The American member group, the International Socialist Organization, was expelled because it disagreed with this approach. A group called "Left Turn" split from the ISO and affiliated with the IST... and then quickly descended into a kind of amphorous, anarchisty, activist-movement magazine that lacked any definable ideological pedigree.

At the time of its writing the word "marxism" is absent from the Left Turn website. The British SWP seems to be in a bit of a crisis and has lost a lot of members, and the American ISO seems to have ridden up and down the past few years (membership wise) the same roller coster as the rest of the far left in this country. But they can consistently get over a thousand people to a great conference in Chicago each summer, and their publications, Socialist Worker, The International Socialist Review, and Haymarket Books look good and seem to be getting good distribution.

Personally my whole take on the "anticapitalism" thing is a bit ticked off. Why the heck did some British Trotskyists spend years of their lives building a modest but inviting and theoretically sound international grouping just to piss it away in a dumb disagreement on perspectives? That's crazy. Maybe they got old and were going to die soon so they substituted "wishful thinking" for a clear analysis of things. I don't know.

Do I think the "anti-Globalization" movement that got really visible with Seattle in 1999 was "anti-capitalist"? Heck no I don't. For starters if there are so many "anti capitalists" out there well where are they because I'd like to meet them! There were people in the anti-globalization movement who had an analysis of Capitalism and opposed it but they were a minority within a much broader movement consisting mostly of reformist NGOs, trade unions, and community groups. The organizations built by this movement seemed to almost completely disintegrate into silence in the face of the post 9-11 jingoism that swept the country. Pretty much the entire organized (and non) US left supported John Kerry in 2004 and more recently, Barak Obama in 2008. These were both pro-free market capitalist politicians who are just fine with imperial invasions of other countries. How is any of this evidence of a specifically "anti-capitalist" new mood?

Individual radicals exist who oppose capitalism, and with the economic crisis their numbers are increasing. But they are geographically and organizationally isolated and theoretically all over the place. One guy wears a "che" shirt, smokes pot, and protested the Democratic National Convention. Another protested Pelosi's votes for war but also gave money to Obama. A third starts a local zine on organic food production, while a fourth opens a "fair trade" coffee shop that can't afford to provide health insurance to its employees. Here and there small groups in different cities gather together to read some literature or discuss the economy... A new info shop or indymedia site appears and an art gallery has a "political" exhibit... Next week is perhaps the monthly meeting of the Green Party or Iraq Veterans Against the War...

There may be an "anti-corporate mood" now that is much wider than it was in 2000... but how deep is it? How many people today who are pissed off at AIG and the bailouts just think "greed" or underregulation, rather than the logic of capitalism itself, is The Problem? How many well meaning American reformers have no notion or care at all for the past 200 years of socialist ideological development and still look- much like the French Sans Coulettes- to the small businessman and the "middle" class (rather than the proletariat)- as society's potential savoirs?

That's not a movement. It's a broad ideological milieu for whom sustained activism on any campaign for any length of time is exceptional. It's a potential force that's currently unable to run candidates, or even compete with the corporate media for the "battle of minds", on anything more than a sporadic, local level.

Trotskyism is relevant because the idea of revolutionary parties is relevant. It's workers and owners, and right now the owners run the government, and they use it to send the workers to a lot of stupid, endless wars, and give tax payer money to bail out their rich corporate friends when their own greed explodes in everyone's face. At the same time they tell us that it's "too costly" to provide health care to people who need it.

A revolutionary restructuring of power makes sense. Greed has two political parties, a big state with a lot of prisons and weapons, and a media that always has their interests setting the agenda. We're going to need to take politics and organization seriously if we are to have any chance at all against it. For this reason Trotskyism is relevant today- despite the best efforts of so many Trotskyists to scare everyone else away from it!

Trotskyist groups in the US I like are the

International Socialist Organization



I also like this French one:

New AntiCapitalist Party

It's a merger between the Trotskyist "League Communiste Revolutionare" and other forces on the left.


  1. I don't think we can really know exactly what will work best except for trial and error.

    Until the majority of people recognize that there is something seriously wrong with billionaires owning are main sources of information it just doesn't matter if a few people are calling themselves Trotskyites or Leninists.

    As to all the factions and spliting and for that matter the trotskists, etc I've known who were complete assholes, I really wonder how many are secret agents?

    They want to justify having a job and as such they inflate the importance of threats. Veganism even is inflated into a threat in private by the rightwingers who work at NSA, etc. I wouldn't be surprised if the majority of members of these organizations are actually government men. And if they turn more people onto Chomsky, etc then genuine people, IOW create a "threat" just so it appears there's a reason for them to continue having a job.

    I wouldn't be surprised if something as bizarre and horrible as that was actually the truth and if even that's the only reason they didn't just kill Chomsky, etc.

    Of course if the left was any real threat at all, this isn't 1917, with today's technology the power they have over us is huge and they can very very easily kill us if they think they need to...

    Anyway, I've just been flabbergasted at what dicks I've known on the far left.

    And I think the two main things for the far left to do are: 1. Just learn how to interact with one another. 2. Focus on the problem of the MSM being owned by billionaires.

    I don't see the point in anything beyond that. The only reason I have a problem with people calling themselves anarchists is because it's like a kind of holocaust denial.

  2. Hey thanks for your comments- I tried to leave you some on your site but I couldn't figure out how to do that.

    Anyways... good points... I think it was something like either 1/10th or 1/5th of the American SWP's membership in the 50's and early 60s that were FBI agents. I'm sure other groups had similar relations. I've also heard it joked by leftists that some of the more "out there" (it's more civil not to name names, eh?) "socialist" groups were creations of the government in order to discredit the left. Who knows!

    In general your approaches I think are right, but there's still the question of organization, which I think we really need. I think the essence of leninism('s relevance) can be boiled down to the one little line in "what is to be done" where he's talking about different radicals in Russia, each being "in their own hole", totally focused on their local/ personal activism, and without any insight on or coordination of activism on a national scale.

  3. I have comments closed because the blog was (is?) an experiment in trying to get my creativity going and comments I think would mostly stifle that from happening. Sorry.

    I haven't read What is to be done, but I think it was clearly a good thing they had some organization in Russia. And that also the Czar was incompetent. And the media hadn't been brainwashing the people that communism was bad, bad bad! for 80 years like it's been doing in America. And they were using horses to get around. And the army was starving and not made up almost solely of rightwingers, etc.

    OK, ultimately my wife has been sufficiently scared by the force which has been used against the far left. I couldn't join such an organization. She would spend all her time afraid if I did (and didn't hide it from her, which I wouldn't.)

    She's a normal person. Obviously it would take an unusual person to join such organizations today. Not just a well read person. But a person who wasn't much for letting others control them with fear, etc. A very 'moral' person, perhaps.

  4. Perhaps the current economic crisis is the kind of thing that's needed to turn "activism" or "political involvement" or "social/community/workplace/political" organizations into something that is more accepted as part of our lives.

    Maybe in the US we're too hyper individualist, or isolated... but it's like, this weird closeted thing to be an "activist". If you get paid to work for an NGO or a trade union, that's "normal", but if you talk to your friends or spouse and you're like, "hey, we should sit around and discuss what is wrong, and try and come up with some solutions, and find ways to go out in the world and spread these ideas and build groups that can act on them", then you're some kind of weirdo or something.

    I guess just stay informed and up to date through alternative media, and keep an ear out for events and campaigns and interesting, political individuals around you. Maybe something will come along eventually that will seem like something you'd like to (/ feel comfortable with) check out.

  5. "Maybe in the US we're too hyper individualist, or isolated... but it's like, this weird closeted thing to be an "activist". If you get paid to work for an NGO or a trade union, that's "normal", but if you talk to your friends or spouse and you're like, "hey, we should sit around and discuss what is wrong, and try and come up with some solutions, and find ways to go out in the world and spread these ideas and build groups that can act on them", then you're some kind of weirdo or something."

    I don't really think Americans are actually individualist at all. I think them incredibly conformed. But we are isolated. Suburban sprawl, cars, TV...quite a few other things I think that are more out there. Monogamy, the fear of being perceived as gay. Everyone hides whatever difficulties they're having in their lives from one another. Because if you're unhappy it means there's something wrong with you, etc.

    Perhaps suburban sprawl at least will decrease as we run out of oil.

    "I guess just stay informed and up to date through alternative media, and keep an ear out for events and campaigns and interesting, political individuals around you. Maybe something will come along eventually that will seem like something you'd like to (/ feel comfortable with) check out."
    I live in West Virginia so, no.

    I used to live in Los Alamos, NM by the way though (which is very conservative and isolated...). Drove up to Denver, Boulder a couple times. I was transfixed by how beautiful it is out there at first. On a clear night in Los Alamos you can see the Milky Way.