Matgamna: What is Trotskyism?

August 23, 2016 at 5:47 pm (AWL, class, history, labour party, Lenin, Marxism, posted by JD, Shachtman, socialism, trotskyism)

We publish the following piece by Sean Matgamna (of Workers Liberty) in the light of recent scare stories about alleged ‘Trotskyist’ infiltration of/influence over, the Labour Party:

Shachtman (rt) with Trotsky & Frida Kahlo in Mexico, 1937

What is Trotskyism? (written 2007)

Click here for the debate around this contribution.

19th and 20th century socialism is a house of many rooms, cellars, attics, alcoves, and hidden chambers (not to speak of private chapels and “priest-holes”).

There are in it the utopian socialists of our pre-history reformists and revolutionists, parliamentarians and insurrectionists, “direct action” anarchists and union-building syndicalists, council communists and kibbutz-building utopian Zionists.

And then fascists sometimes proclaimed themselves socialists (national-socialists). So did many Third World political formations, often more fascist than socialist, such as the “Ba’th Arab Socialist Parties” of Iraq and Syria.

And Stalinism. The political reflections and tools in the labour movements of the Russian Stalinist ruling class proclaimed themselves “communists” and “socialists”, and for much of the 20th century were accepted as the main force of communism and socialism, in bourgeois propaganda as well as their own.

The great names of real socialism are numerous, and are far from being at one with each other: Gracchus Babeuf, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Etienne Cabet, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Auguste Blanqui, Mikhail Bakunin, Ferdinand Lassalle, Louis Michel, Wilhelm Liebknecht and his son Karl, August Bebel, George Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich, Jules Guesde, Jean Jaures, Victor Griffuelhes, Paul Lafargue, Laura Lafargue, Eleanor Marx, Pavel Axelrod, Peter Kropotkin, James Connolly, Daniel De Leon, Jim Larkin, Eugene Debs, Christian Rakovsky, Henry Hyndman, Ernest Belfort Bax, William Morris, Keir Hardie, Klara Zetkin, Sylvia Pankhurst, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, Vladimir Shliapnikov, Leon Trotsky, Chen Duxiu, Antonio Gramsci, Leon Sedov, James P Cannon, Leon Lesoil, Pantelis Pouliopoulos, Abram Leon, Ta Thu Thau, Henk Sneevliet, Max Shachtman…

The Communist International picked up and subsumed many of the threads of earlier socialism, and wove them into a more or less coherent strategy of working-class struggle for power — the direct action of the French and American syndicalists, the political “syndicalism” of the De Leonites, the revolutionary parliamentarianism of Liebknecht, the sometimes acute criticism by communist-anarchists of the parliamentarians of the pre-1914 Socialist International, the concern with national liberation of such as James Connolly, and all that was healthy in previous socialist activity and theorising.

They denounced bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism in the name of the fuller democracy of workers’ councils — their criticism of bourgeois democracy would later, like so much else, be annexed and put to its own pernicious uses by totalitarian Stalinism.

The Russian working class, in their unprecedented creativity — for instance, in creating soviets (workers’ councils) — and the Bolsheviks who led them to victory had in life found solutions to many of the problems that had perplexed earlier socialist thinkers.

What had all the different strands of socialism in common? What, with their different methods, tempos, and perspectives, did they seek to achieve?

All of them — the socialist reformists such as Keir Hardie, too — sought to abolish capitalism and the exploitation and wage-slavery on which it rested, and to replace it with a non-exploitative, rational, humane society.

Their ideas of what would replace capitalism differed greatly, for instance between anarchists and Marxists, but all the socialists sought to replace private ownership of the means of production and exchange with collective social ownership by the workers and working farmers.

All of them — in one way or another, with one qualification or another — looked to the working class, the slave-class of the capitalist era, to achieve this great social revolution.

They saw themselves as educators and organisers of the working class, to work for social betterment and for the socialist transformation of society.

For those who publish Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the Marxist, communist, socialist tradition runs from Marx, through the fighters of the Paris Commune, the revolutionaries in the German Social Democratic Party and the Socialist International of 1889-1914, the Bolsheviks who led the greatest event in the whole of working-class history, the October 1917 Revolution; to the Communist International and its first four congresses (1919-22), and then the rearguard of Bolshevism and of the Bolshevik Communist International, the Left Oppositionists, the Trotskyists.

Up to Trotsky’s death in 1940, it could be asserted without fear of contradiction from anyone who both knew the history of the preceding 20 years and was concerned with truth, that there was a clear line of development that had so far culminated in the movement for the Fourth International led by Trotsky, and the International it founded in September 1938.

That political tendency had led the Russian Revolution and defended it in civil war with the White Guard forces and against the allies of the Whites, the invading armies of no fewer than 14 countries.

The dying Lenin, in the first place, and then the Left Opposition founded in Moscow in October 1923, whose leaders were Trotsky and Rakovsky, had fought the Stalinist counter-revolution that overthrew the workers’ state. Fought it to the death of vast numbers, almost all their number, in Stalin’s concentration camps, jails, and homicide chambers.

We are not here talking about apostolic succession, of a line of infallible popes culminating in Trotsky. All such notions are alien to this tradition.

Leaders with acquired authority and prestige, yes; Catholic or Stalinist popes, no.

Every member of Lenin’s Bolshevik party Central Committee of October 1917 had opposed him at some previous turning point or another, some of them even on the October insurrection itself. Trotsky too found himself opposed by all his close comrades at one point or another.

This was a living movement of self-respecting, experienced militants, which conducted its affairs according to reason; which took it for granted that honest differences of opinion inevitably arise even among very like-minded people honestly pursuing the same goals, and that they can only be resolved by reason, discussion, and democratic decision-making.

All extant kitsch-left notions of socialist and communist popes possessing infallibility — and the power of coercion to compel compliance — arose in the era of triumphant Stalinist and bourgeois reaction. This is how Lenin, writing in 1907, defined the relationship between party democracy and majority rule in action.

“The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action… Criticism within the basis of the principles of the party programme must be quite free… not only at party meetings but also at public meetings.”

By the time of Trotsky’s death at the hand of Stalin’s assassin on 21 August 1940, this great socialist tradition had dwindled down to a few tiny organisations in, perhaps, a couple of dozen countries. It would dwindle further.

The fundamental reason for that was the rise of Stalinism, which for most of the 20th century dwarfed and overshadowed socialism.

A bureaucracy collectively “owning” the state had expropriated the workers in the USSR, depriving them of all rights and using them far worse than the workers in any capitalist countries were used, worse, even than in Nazi Germany. It turned them into state slaves or (as Trotsky wrote in 1939) semi-slaves.

The new ruling class continued to call itself communist and Marxist; it defined and camouflaged its own savage rule over the working class as the rule of the working class over society; it represented its anti-socialist and anti-working class revolution as the living continuity of the October revolution.

By repeated purges, ideological bamboozlements, and by bribery and corruption, they took control of the Communist International, the powerful international network of revolutionary working-class organisations made up of people who had rallied to the Russian revolution.

Stalinism, in history, is above all a movement of social and political and sociological misrepresentation and parody.

In the USSR, and later in other Stalinist states, they ran fake trade unions, fake parties, fake elections, fake rule by the working class, fake national autonomies, and fake, utterly fake, socialism.

Stalinism was, in its account of itself and in its account of what it was doing, a gigantic historical masquerade, sustained over nearly seven decades.

“Communism” changed in the 1920s and 30s from being a genuine revolutionary working-class movement into a series of totalitarian organisations in the capitalist states, working to serve the USSR and its leaders. Their own local leaders aspired to become what in the USSR the “communists”, the bureaucratic ruling class, were. They created immense ideological confusions in the working-class movement. They isolated the Left Opposition, and later the Joint Opposition of Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Krupskaya, and the international Trotskyist movement, led by Trotsky, from the mass army of would-be communists, who saw in the Stalinist parties the local battalions of the Russian Revolution.

At first they used subtle political misrepresentation. Then they used violence and repression. It became increasingly reckless and intense, until in the years from 1935 onwards, it culminated in mass murder in the USSR, in Spain, and, on a much smaller scale, in other countries. At the end of World War Two, Stalinists in Vietnam and Greece massacred Trotskyists and assassinated individual Trotskyists and other socialist opponents in France, Belgium, Italy and the USA.

Throughout fascist and then Stalinist-ruled Europe, the cadres of Trotskyism were murdered. They did splendid deeds here and there in that Europe, for example in producing Arbeiter und Soldat, an underground paper for the German workers in uniform in the army of occupation in France, (an enterprise which cost the lives of two dozen Trotskyists, most of them German soldiers).

But those were mere episodes only, not a part of, or the harbingers of, a great socialist movement. At the end of the Second World War Stalinism loomed in the world as a great and expanding power.

The USSR in 1939 had made up a sixth of the world. At the end of a big expansion that, though it would not end until the Russian defeat in Afghanistan (1979-89), reached its peak with the proclamation of the Stalinist People’s Republic of China in October 1949, Stalinism controlled one-third of the surface of the earth.

It had mass parties, which were the main parties of the working class, in a number of capitalist countries, France, Italy, Indonesia, etc.

For a whole historical epoch, authentic socialism, and the Marxism of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, were banished to the margins of the working-class movements almost everywhere.

Most “reform socialists” — though now, the socialists who wanted to replace capitalism were not too numerous among reformists — rallied to the anti-Russian side of the two blocs into which the world was divided.

Against that background, the defeated and depleted Trotskyist current, always small, shrank in the 1950s to being very little even miniscule. In Trotky’s time the gap between its ideological riches and its small forces had been one of this movement’s most characteristics features. Now, in terms of its ideas, too, it shrank

The major surviving Trotskisant current, the so-called “orthodox Trotskyists”, organised in the “Fourth International” of James P Cannon, Michel Pablo, and Ernest Mandel, and its splinters, the Morenists, Lambertists, Healyites, etc., sided with the Stalinist camp in the world polarisation into two blocs. They were “critically”, but “unconditionally”, for the “defence” of the Stalinist bloc against the other bloc, and for all its full and partial partisans. The expansion of the Stalinist bloc was, they insisted, the World Revolution advancing,though, to be sure, advancing in unexpected and uncongenial (“deformed”) ways.

For the USSR and the East European satellite states they advocated Trotsky’s programme of working-class revolution. Following Trotsky, they called what they advocated a “political revolution”, but in fact what they, like Trotsky, advocated was a profound social revolution, the destruction of the Stalinist state power and its replacement by a working-class regime based on workers’ councils. That meant a fundamental transformation in property, from ownership by the totalitarian state, which was itself owned by the Stalinist autocracy, to ownership by a democratic working-class quasi-state.

For the countries in which Stalinist guerrilla armies had won power in civil wars and made their own Stalinist states, the “orthodox Trotskyists” tended to advocate not revolution but reform as the way to working-class democracy.

In this their politics were a hybrid of Trotsky’s and those of the pre-war Brandlerite “Right Communists” or “liberal Stalinists”, splinter from the Communist International. The influential writer Isaac Deutscher, though he had been a Trotskyist from 1932 until 1940, was after that a Brandlerite in his ideas about the USSR, etc. Brandlerite politics and assessments suffuse his very widely read three-volume biography of Trotsky, and his biography of Stalin.

For the last sixty years of the 20th century, most anti-Stalinists were of this “orthodox Trotskyist” — or better, “orthodox Trotskyist”/ Deutscherite — persuasion. In their own inadequate and contradictory way, despite their belief that the advance of Stalinism in the world was the “deformed” advance of the socialist world revolution, nevertheless, they were anti-Stalinist. At their worst, when calling, like the old Utopian Socialists, on Stalinist ruling classes to reform their own system, they advocated radical reform that, if they were realised, would not have have left much of Stalinism intact.

Almost everything “Trotskyist” in our early 21st century post-Stalinist world — including AWL — has its roots in that “orthodox Trotskyist” current. It was, probably, its ambiguities, self-contradictoriness, politically protean character, which allowed that current to survive, in many political dialects.

There was another Trotskyist current — that of those who fought Trotsky in 1939-40 because they rejected any sort of “critical support” for the Russian Stalinist army in its war with Finland (from November 1939 to April 1940).

They went on to break, in 1940-1, with the idea that the USSR was any kind or degree of workers’ state.

It was this assessment of the USSR, inherited from Trotsky but erected by themselves into a self-blinding dogma, that trapped the “Orthodox Trotskyists” into letting themselves be reduced, too often, to the role of epiphenomena, mere satellites, of the Stalinist’s bloc and its partisans in the capitalist states.

In response to events, they elaborated a distinct strand of Trotskyism.

In the 1940s the “orthodox Trotskyists” floundered politically in face of, first, the unexpected survival of Russian Stalinism, and then the eruption of Stalinist imperialism. They floundered so badly that, reading their magazines and papers now, in a friendly spirit, one is forced to wonder if they read the factual parts of the bourgeois press at the time. They did read newspapers; but they also, like Bible-fetish Christians, read in the Big Book of “Trotskyist” “orthodoxy”, where they themselves had written as immutable dogma an unrepresentative selection of Trotsky’s works and phrases, especially on the USSR.

In contrast, the “other Trotskyists”, the “Heterodox Trotskyists”, responded to the consolidation of the Stalinist autocracy and the rise of its empire to the eminence of second power in the world with accurate reporting and sober assessment of its meaning for socialist theory and its implications for the socialist working-class programme.

It can be argued (as I have argued, in detail and at length, elsewhere*) that this “Heterodox Trotskyist” current, in fact, despite its episodic dispute with Trotsky in 1939-40, continued the politics of Trotsky and applied them to the world, and specifically to Stalinism, in the way that Trotsky himself would have done if he had survived into the 1940s. Be that as it may, they evolved a distinctive Trotskyist tradition and gave it life.

For a whole epoch of world history, they produced a powerful literature that has for that period no equal, nor any near relative or rival. Ultimately, from the end of the 1950s, this tendency too fell apart.

Its best-known and politically most able representatives, Max Shachtman and his close friends, abandoned the socialist programme of independent working class politics, of the “third camp”, and sided with bourgeois-democratic capitalist USA against the Stalinist bloc, seeing the US and its allies as the only viable alternative to Stalinism. They took that course for reasons that have much in common with those which led the “orthodox Trotskyists” to back the Stalinist bloc (critically — but the Shachtmanites too were critical of “their” bloc).

Where the “Orthodox Trotskyists” saw the Stalinist states, which expropriated capitalism, as the advancing (“deformed”) world revolution, the “Heterodox Trotskyists” saw it as the advance and spread of totalitarian slavery that it in fact was.

What they had in common, the two basic strains of post-Trotsky “Trotskyists”, was the belief that capitalism was collapsing and dying.

For the “orthodox”, that gave them confidence that History was (sort of, in a “deformed” way), on their side, and shaped the way they saw Stalinism.

To the Shachtmanites, the choice of replacement for capitalism — and it was sure to be replaced soon, one way or another — was either Stalinism or socialism. In the capitalist prosperity of the 1950s and 60s, they saw only a respite in the disintegration and death-decline of capitalism: it could not last, and, therefore, so it sometimes seems in their writings, it did not really exist, at least in terms of the long-term perspective. This skews their perception in the articles reprinted here.

Stalinism was indeed expanding, and it would continue to expand for some years after Shachtman’s death in 1972. Following through the line of thought that under bourgeois democracy, in sharp contrast to Stalinist totalitarianism, the working-class movement could function, and could prepare itself to create a socialist alternative to both capitalism and Stalinism, Shachtman and his co-thinkers went over to the US-led bloc.

Within that bloc, they thought, working-class independent socialism could emerge; and meanwhile, it was the only viable progressive alternative to Stalinism.

Shachtman became mired in the dirty politics of the Democratic Party. As a tendency, his co-thinkers evolved into born-again social-democrats.

Shachtman never abjured support for the October Revolution, though some of his co-thinkers would (see Al Glotzer in Workers’ Liberty 16).

Others in the “Heterodox Trotskyist” tendency — most notably Hal Draper, Phyllis and Julius Jacobson and a few others, who started the magazine New Politics in the early 1960s — rejected Shachtman’s course and maintained independent socialist politics.

The truth, however, is that, in their own particular way, they too moved very far from the politics of the tendency in its heroic days of the 40s and most of the 50s. They rejected the project of building a revolutionary socialist party. Draper repudiated and rejected what he called the “micro-sect” project of organisation-building, of uniting theory and practice. They became mere propagandists — with propaganda, to be sure, of a very high order.

Today, we live in conditions where the tradition of revolutionary Marxism that “flowed” through Trotsky and the Trotskyism of his time is highly fragmented, its elements disassembled and sometimes, needlessly counterposed to each other as fetish objections, that is, dogmatically overemphasised aspects of what should be one integrated movement. This situation has much in common with the state of revolutionary socialism before the Communist International, after the October Revolution, began to reintegrate the contributions of the Social-Democratic left, the revolutionary syndicalists, and the best of the anarchists, into a coherent whole.

In times of adversity, one-sided “sects” can sometimes play a positive role, by preserving valuable ideas, even in dessicated form.

The “Orthodox Trotskyists” did that, and so in their different ways did the others. AWL, over decades, evolved its own political tradition out of the “Orthodox Trotskyism” of James P Cannon. We then learned much from the “Heterodox Trotskyists” and from attempting to reintegrate the positive contributions of others — the revolutionary syndicalists, for example — into our work.

The revolutionary socialist tradition is immensely important. Why?

The revolutionary movement is, in Trotsky’s words, “the memory of the working class”. The bourgeoisie has a vast retinue of intellectuals to record, construe, explain, slant, spin current and past events from the point of view of the ruling bourgeoisies.It has a many-faceted educational apparatus which teaches its history, its values, its outlook, which glorifies its system. It tells the young that capitalism and bourgeois democracy are the culmination of history. It fights the bourgeois class war on the “ideological front”, waging a never-ending ideological war on the bourgeoisie’s behalf. (For instance, the way the oil and other “interests” have systematically worked to discredit the evidence about global warming.)The bourgeoisie also has social and political institutions which “socialise” people in general and the working class in particular, into the values, the outlook, and the tradition which expresses its interests.

The working class has none of that. It exists in a bourgeois world, dominated by commerce, which inculcates bourgeois values. It is constantly under bombardment by the bourgeois media, which do the same.

Against all that we have our under-resourced educational and propaganda work; and a large part of that depends on and is enriched by the written residues of the socialist past.

You cannot at will take the working class through the enlightening experience of a general strike. You can teach workers about the general strikes of history, like Britain in 1926 and France in 1936 and 1968, and about such half-buried events as the British general strike of 1842 (in bourgeois histories, the “Plug Riots”).

Our traditions are immensely important. They embody our history, our collective, codified experience, spanning generations and the work of generations of socialists. They exemplify our Marxist methodology, our models of how to analyse and think.

We live in a situation where the living aspects of our tradition are dislocated, and embedded in partly alien traditions. For instance, that of the “orthodox Trotskyists”. Therefore, in striveing to integrate the sundered elements of the Trotskyism of Trotskyists we face the danger of vapid eclecticism.

Avoiding that is a question of striving for consistency, critical understanding of what we take as our “tradition”, and above all in living by the cardinal rule of Marxist politics — to be guided always by the logic of the class struggle, and within that by the interests of the working class, including its “interest” in learning socialist and consistently democratic lessons from its own experience. The work of the political current, some of whose writings we present in this pamphlet issue of Workers’ Liberty, can help us greatly in this work.
[Note: this is a slightly fuller text than the version printed in Workers’ Liberty.]

See also:

The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism

Andrew Coates: Trotsky Today: A Critical Balance Sheet

Andrew Coates: The Labour Party, Trotskyism and Pabloism


  1. Andrew said,

    “the Bolsheviks who led the greatest event in the whole of working-class history, the October 1917 Revolution”

    Given how much misery this event caused for working people in Russia, and its surrounding nations, and how keen its founders seem to have been to butcher bourgeois/clergy/peasants with abit of land – I find that very difficult to understand.

    It seems to me you could have the same political tradition while accepting the Bolshevik revolution was a bunch of bloody awful blokes doing what they always do – obsessing with power – and not entertaining the leadership who by and large appear to be awful people.

  2. jschulman said,

    I recommend Andrew read Lars T. Lih’s 2011 biography of Lenin, called simply “Lenin.” It may very well change your mind.

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