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Trotskyist Bears and Working Class Stars

Jim Higgins

"Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out crude rhythms for bears to dance to, when we long to make music that will move the stars to tears." Flaubert

AL RICHARDSON and Cyril Smith in their articles on Trotskyism (Cyril Smith, "On the Importance of Having Been a Trotskyist", and Al Richardson, "The Place of Trotskyism in the Logic of Marxism", both in issue No.20) have started a useful and necessary discussion, and What Next? is to be commended for providing a forum for that discussion to take place. There is always something to be learned from Trotsky, even on those occasions when his arguments, eroded by time and experience, seem less convincing than once they did. Trotskyism at least is coherent and one can appreciate its quality without agreeing with every dot and comma or doing damage either to conscience or good sense.

Stalinism, on the other hand, which, especially in Stalin’s own hand, reads like the pedestrian maunderings of an inattentive seminarist, is at one and the same time inconsistent and incoherent. Stalin’s most inspired wheeze, as Al Richardson points out in his article, was to invent a totally spurious Leninism as a weapon with which to beat Trotsky, which the unfortunate L.D.T. could only counter by seeming to put himself at odds with Lenin. For the rest, Stalinism could accommodate contradictions as a dog provides a home for fleas. Today it might be let’s go left with Zinoviev, tomorrow it could be let’s go right with the Bukharinites. For Stalin, the ultra-left Third Period could give way without a word of explanation to a Popular Front against fascism, which in its turn could arbitrarily change to sucking up to Hitler, and all as if these were items in a natural progression with a brain at work throughout the piece.

Trotsky on substitutionism is brilliant and it is a pity that he did not subsequently call this to the attention of those in effective charge of the Fourth International in the 1930s. The theory of the Permanent Revolution is an astonishingly accurate preview of how the Russian Revolution actually took place. Less satisfactory were his later ideas on the "Russian question". To follow Trotsky through his self-constructed maze, running from Thermidor to Bonapartism, on to the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy that maintained state property only under the pressure of the masses, and finally in 1940 leaving the answer to the question in history’s safe hands, results in confusion rather than clarity. All this seems to have represented developments in Trotsky’s head, developments, unfortunately, cut short by Ramón Mercader’s ice-axe, rather than significant changes in the phenomenon he was describing. What we can say with some confidence is that the emphasis on the class nature of Russia and all the theories that failed to describe it or understand it illuminated nothing, and despite their alleged insight into the laws of motion of this new society none of them came within a mile of what actually happened.

Paradoxically, one of the most practical and inspired ideas of Trotsky was the Transitional Programme that he worked up for the founding conference of the Fourth International. Here was a programme, beautifully tailored to its time, with which a communist party firmly based in the working class could make genuine advances. Alas, there was no such party adhering to the FI – indeed, the membership figures quoted for the organisations at the founding conference were exaggerated and even at that they were in the tens and a few hundreds. The truth is that there were not even enough Trotskyists to attempt to promote the Transitional Programme in a social democratic party, despite the fact that most of them were engaged in some sort of entry tactic.

Regardless of that, however, in the real world the notion of transitional demands can be extended far beyond the original items set out in Trotsky’s 1938 programme. Within the trade unions, it is possible to develop a programme of transitional demands that can develop the struggle and set the stage for future political struggles. No Trotskyist organisation has made any serious attempt to develop such a programme, which is sad because the real dynamic of the 1938 founding conference was in the transitional method not in the construction of the first of a seemingly endless succession of Potemkin Internationals.

Most of us would support the proposition that there is a crying need for a World Party of Socialist Revolution. Unfortunately, it was not called into being by a handful of delegates in Rosmer’s back garden, and it is even less likely that it will be called into being from one or the other of the fragments from the sundered Pabloite and Healyite Internationals. Today as in 1938 there is no justification for building, with not one hundredth part of its forces, a tiny copy of the Communist International, especially as the CI cannot be said to have been overburdened with revolutionary successes, even during the brave early days covered by the first four congresses.

It is probably the case that Trotsky was loath to criticise the early CI in the same way as he failed to criticise not only the Lenin cult but also some of the organisational practices of Bolshevism, which come straight from Lenin as do some of the faults in the CI. This inability to come to terms with the legacy of the CI ensured that an international tendency with a total membership of a perhaps a couple of thousand acquired a centre staffed by Stalinist agents and recently ex-Zinovievites to direct the sections. Thus we find that Ruth Fischer, whose record of achievement in the KPD would have sent most people to a retreat for a long period of penitent silence and rigorous self-criticism, was telling the comrades in South Africa, a far away place of which she knew little, how to go about their revolutionary tasks. This did nothing to endear Ruth Fischer to the South African Trotskyists and did rather less than nothing for their revolutionary tasks.

One of the more instructive episodes in the history of the Fourth International, one that may justify the expenditure of a little space, concerns the British Trotskyists who, in 1938, had the temerity not to accept the fusion diktat of James P. Cannon, when he visited these shores to unite the British groups as part of the preparation for the FI’s founding conference. Unfortunately, the most recent split had taken place because some South African comrades were falsely accused of having misled African strikers and then decamped to England with the strike funds. Aided by rumour and gossip, this absurdity had managed to reach the International Executive Committee before being effectively scotched as a Stalinist canard originating in South Africa. All of this occurred in late 1937, and the passions aroused, that gave rise to the split, had hardly gone off the boil before Cannon arrived to unite to groups who were definitely not speaking to one another. He was not amused when the offended parties, Heaton and Ralph Lee, Millie Lee, Ted Grant and Jock Haston, refused the invitation. As a result they were branded as "a petit bourgeois group, with nationalist tendencies" at the Founding Congress and earned themselves the enduring hostility of James P. Cannon. (This unedifying episode is much more adequately dealt with in War and the International, by Al Richardson and Sam Bornstein.)

With the coming of the war the group led by Ralph Lee and Jock Haston, the Workers International League, was more successful than the Revolutionary Socialist League, the official section, under the clever but uninspired leadership of Denzil Harber. The WIL recruited in mines and factories, particularly the Royal Ordnance Factories, and in the forces, and maintained a lively propaganda, while the RSL, whose main enthusiasm seems to have been faction fighting, fermented gently in the Labour Party where the electoral truce meant virtually no activity at all. By 1944 the WIL had some 400 members while the RSL had about 70. As the war moved to its conclusion, Trotsky’s promises for the post-war world, the demise of Stalinism and the deep crisis of capitalism, with the imminent prospect of workers’ power, seemed about to be realised. The only thing missing from this revolutionary equation was a united British section of the Fourth International.

To rectify his failure of 1938, Cannon sent Sam Gordon over to assist the fusion. Gordon’s brief seems to have involved bringing together the malcontents from both organisations so that the new section, the Revolutionary Communist Party, could be presented with an augmented, virulent and internationally nurtured irritant from the very day of its foundation. The Healy-Lawrence faction was born. Having set his little time bomb in the RCP, Cannon set his mind to the FI, which during the war had been evacuated to the US. Obviously the FI should be based in Europe where the revolution was expected to start, but just to make sure that he was still in charge Cannon had his nominees Michel Raptis (Pablo) and Ernest Mandel (Germain) installed in the leadership. Pablo and Mandel became his "young men in Europe". Naturally enough, part of Pablo’s responsibility was to oversee the work of Cannon’s acolytes in the UK, Healy and Lawrence.

In the light of subsequent events and such seminal works as Against Pablo Revisionism, it is amazing to learn that Healy was the most dedicated Pabloite in the International. His political line was supplied from Paris and his faction was afforded most favourable status by the IEC. So it continued. Pablo was given free rein to eviscerate the French section, freeing it from its most experienced and consequential leadership. With splendid opportunism he could commit the FI to supporting Tito in his little unpleasantness with Stalin. This experiment with Stalinism with a Yugoslav face became the prelude to a general softening of the line on Stalinism. This change was reflected in Pablo’s own works on the War-Revolution, Centuries of Deformed Workers' States and his theory that significant sections of the Stalinist bureaucracy would come over to the revolution, under the pressure of the masses in the developing economic and political crisis.

Whatever your opinion on the validity of Pablo’s thought, it cannot be gainsaid that it was completely contrary to both the spirit and the word of Trotsky’s ideas. For Trotsky, the very notion of any kind of workers’ state which comes into being without the active intervention of the working class is an invention entirely alien to his politics. The War-Revolution, where the workers’ states defeat the capitalists and set up loads of deformed workers’ states lasting for the next few hundred years, was no less at odds with Trotsky’s thinking. He would have denied vigorously that the Stalinists were capable of any kind of revolutionary advance, or that large sections of the bureaucracy would come over to the revolution. On this point at least, history seems to be on Trotsky’s side of the vote.

Pablo might act up in Europe and play fast and loose with Trotskyist theory with impunity, but an attempt to interfere in Cannon’s SWP was an adventure too far. In short order, there were two organisations, the new International Committee of the Fourth International, covering the British section, the SWP USA and a French section plus a few odds and sods, and Pablo’s remaindered International Secretariat of the Fourth International. The unedifying spectacle of the FI and the manner in which it rapidly became the tiny stage on which even smaller men have strutted and plotted while maintaining the pretence that they are organising the emancipation of humanity is a piece of theatre with diminishing credibility. In another part of the forest, we have the British SWP with its not really a Fourth International, more a sort of Two-and-Five-Sixteenths International in which Alex Callinicos is apparently licensed to extirpate dissenters, or invent some dissent if none actually exists. Thus the American affiliate, the ISO, has been cast into the outer darkness and Callinicos like Healy, Pablo, Cannon and Zinoviev before him is proving a dab hand with bell, book and candle. Trotsky had a word for all this: substitutionism, a word that in its accusatory form could be used again and again in the 60-odd years since the FI was founded with so many brave hopes and so few possibilities.

Of course, the FI did not fail because Cannon, Pablo, Mandel and Healy were bad people, although come to think of it Healy was a bad person, but because the organisations in which they were pre-eminent had no connection with the working class, not at one, not even at two removes. The sections had virtually no workers and this inevitably led to a fatal disconnection between the real movement and the one where small meetings in pub rooms are lectured by gurus, with long standing subscriptions to the Economist and the Financial Times, about the class struggle. How such a section is to prepare the International with the meaningful information that would enable it to act as the General Staff of the revolution is not disclosed. Is it any wonder that in the strange amalgam of cloud cuckoo land and limbo there was a democracy of daft ideas that would set the faithful to bitter argument, faction fighting and splits that even today animates the most dedicated "Trotskyists"? The Fourth International really has no future because it has no past. No matter how much we pretend that a recitation of the bullet points in the Trotskyist canon can give it wings and a powerful engine, it will remain on the ground, immobile as a brick, invaded by weeds and suffering the corrosion of cruel reality.

Alongside the fetish of the International, our heritage has also included a similarly pious attitude to the party. At its lowest level this means that a collection of no hopers, nutters and bug-eyed zealots, so long as they call themselves "Bolsheviks" and operate a command system called "democratic centralism", somehow acquires a hammerlock on history and a mystical communion with the working class. This particular foible is essentially Lenin’s organisational prescription for work in conditions of Tsarist illegality, mediated through Stalinist adaptations the better to crush opposition.

As Al Richardson points out in the introduction to the excellent Trotsky and the Origins of Trotskyism (Francis Boutle, 2002), the first international adherents of Trotsky’s opposition, Eastman, Ludwig Lore, Monatte, Rosmer and A.E. Reade, were sacrificed on the altar of the Russian party struggle. The second levy, James P. Cannon, Fischer, Maslow, Treint etc, were ex-Zinovievists, whose earlier experiments in Bolshevism, when they were in the leadership of their own Communist Parties, had been directed to expelling the first Trotskyists. It is from this unlikely group of "democrats" that Trotskyism acquired its close-mouthed, buttock-clenching style of democratic centralism. Anyone with any experience in the movement can tell some horror story, usually involving Gerry Healy, in which they were done wrong in some bizarre travesty of revolutionary justice. (In fact, although Gerry was an endlessly inventive disciplinarian, he was certainly not the first or the last man unwilling to give an opponent, real or imagined, an even break.)

John Gollan used to tell a story about his father, a member of the De Leonite SLP in Glasgow before the First World War. Being a good party man, Gollan senior was proud when selected to stand for the council on the party ticket. In the event he failed to win election by a substantial margin, harvesting only 32 votes. In the party inquest following the contest he was taken severely to task, it being argued that within the ward there were only 28 members of the SLP and the four additional votes were obviously obtained by making concessions to alien political creeds. Apart from the fact that Gollan probably made this story up, it nevertheless illustrates the closed mindset of the dedicated party patriot and I can think of a few comrades from the Trotskyist movement who would have found nothing wrong with that reasoning. The patriot’s mind closes with the spring-loaded bang of a rat trap and it is wise to keep any delicate sensibilities clear of the jaws. To quote another example from even further afield, let us mull over the case of Felix Dzerzhinsky who, when a member of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, wrote to the Executive Committee telling them not to bother sending him the arguments in the debates that preceded EC decisions, just the decisions would do. Now that is the sort of chap, given the choice, you would put in charge of the Cheka.

Closer still in time and space is the Communist Party of Great Britain, whose Weekly Worker I find compulsive reading. They seem to be an open and agreeable enough group, currently engaged in preliminary unity skirmishing with Sean Matgamna’s Alliance for Workers’ Liberty – I do advise they count their fingers before shaking on the deal. A regular feature in their journal, and one that worries me a bit, is the What We Fight For column. "Marxism-Leninism", we are told, "is powerful because it is true." What does this mean? That all of Marxism-Leninism is true? What, every single bit, all those bloody great volumes? Was this truth revealed to Jack Conrad on the road to Damascus, or the Cave at Hira? Or should we just take his word for it, because he has an honest face like Tony Blair?

Or take the "central aim" of What We Fight For: "to reforge the Communist Party of Great Britain. Without this Party the working class is nothing; with it, it is everything." Leave aside the question, why reforge a party that you already proudly proclaim above the masthead? But surely the second part of the point is arse about face. Is it not rather the case that without the working class the CPGB is nothing? Even were the fusion with the AWL to be consummated, the aggregation of nothings would not add materially to the revolutionary forces, because the working class would be somewhere else engaged in less taxing projects.

I have used these examples from different traditions because we can see that the closed mind is not a peculiarly Trotskyist defence against a world that perversely disagrees with us most of the time. For the revolution, we may well need a revolutionary party, but that party will certainly have to be of an even newer kind. The Leninist model did well enough in 1917 but, in the 80-plus years since, it has not marked up any successes; indeed, the Stalinist variant used its command structure to ensure that there were no successes. A socialist organisation finds its justification in the fact that it provides the geographical spread, the publishing resources and a forum in which to discuss and learn from workers; within such a relationship there is a mutual growth and understanding. It is in this too that the possibility of developing transitional programmes can arise; the more successfully this policy is pursued the more the organisation grows in time with developing class awareness and struggle.

In so far as such organic growth takes place, so will the new reality clarify all but the most heavily fortified of closed minds. The is not the realisation of that other Trotskyist unity fantasy, where our membership figures prove to all the other groups that we were right all the time and that the rest had best line up behind the new Lenin. Not at all – this is a movement for the self-emancipation of the working class in which socialists can play a constructive part, not acting the fool as some kind of entrist with a secret agenda for the greater glory of an antediluvian sect.

This is important work because, as Cyril Smith says in his article: "Capitalism ... was and remains a danger to the future of humanity. Only the struggle of the working class movement can avert this danger." It is now a rather more pressing danger since September 11-plus failure George W. Bush developed a taste for the nuclear-armed soundbite. It is, I think, with this in mind that Al Richardson commended Trotsky for his critique of popular frontism, and condemned cosy relationships with the Greens and the like (had his article been written a little earlier, he might have added with fundamentalist Islam). The business of socialists is socialism, and for a job like that you need the working class, not a campaign with some zero-growth Green, a species of Jonathon-Pol-Porritt.

The world has moved on and, no matter how much we might like make-believe swashbuckling in a historical drama, it merely confirms our irrelevance in the same way that the chaps who hurtle about firing muskets in re-enactments of Civil War battles achieve nothing except looking like prats. The communist tradition has, over the decades, acquired such an accretion of dross that its founders would be hard pressed to recognise it as their creation, and where they reject the child, we should be most careful not to adopt the bastard.