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Trotskyist Regroupment: The Ununiteable in Pursuit of the Undesirable

Nick Davies

"... we must ensure that we do not take the revolution off the agenda again, and that we patiently, flexibly and at the same time aggressively struggle for the political regeneration of the Fourth International – to create a world vanguard party that can lead the proletariat to socialist revolution, liberating the whole of humanity" ("Opportunists Split from ITC", Revolutionary Internationalist, No.11, 1992 ).

"... a stage peopled by supposedly innocent children who stride about on stilts and in the most varied costumes, pronouncing speeches they have learned by heart and only half understood, but which they regard with fanatical reverence" (Milan Kundera, The Joke).

"Leninism means being free of the conservative glance backwards, free of precedents, formal references and quotations.... Lenin should not be cut up with scissors for suitable quotations for every occasion, formula never took precedence over reality for him, but was always a means to master reality" (Trotsky, The New Course).

THIS PIECE is intended as a contribution to the welcome discussion on revolutionary regroupment which has featured in recent issues of What Next? In particular it is a response to Gerry Downing’s article Revolutionary Regroupment", in issue No.4 of the journal, which states that "while we have a programme for an orientation to all who call themselves Trotskyists and other centrists, the prime task of today is left Trotskyist regroupment" (my emphasis).

I must disagree with the first part of this sentence, and question very strongly the second part. An initial problem is that Gerry does not say how the categories he mentions are to be defined. What is "left Trotskyism", and what, in this context, is "centrism" other than a pejorative, referring to one’s opponents? For example, is the Spartacist current "left" (or ultra-left?) because of its attitude towards Labourism, or "right", because of its positions on Ireland and Palestine?

Frankly (and I am anxious not to violate the non-sectarian spirit of this journal) a large number, and possibly a majority, of those groups which present themselves as "Trotskyist" (whichever category Gerry chooses to put them into) are a pathetic, destructive joke – their press virtually unreadable, their grasp on political reality shaky. The crossing and recrossing, by the military sections of imaginary, regenerated Fourth Internationals, of the jungle and savannah of Zaire, the towns and valleys of Bosnia, and the arid highlands of Iraqi Kurdistan shows in tragicomically sharp relief the chasm between pretension and actuality. They try to hide their failure to develop revolutionary Marxism beyond 1940 behind bible-thumping and mass-party ceremonial – giving fancy, baroque names to minuscule international tendencies. The bombastic arrogance of their "Central Committee statements" is at odds with their complete political irrelevance. I know from experience that it is far easier to slide into the comfortable subculture of sectariana, where the manoeuvre is everything and the goal nothing, than it is to climb out of it.

Anyway, what does the "Trotskyism" of many of these groups amount to? A formal, dogmatised adherence to the positions of the Bolshevik Party from 1917-23 and the Left Opposition (LO) and its descendants from 1923-40, a tendentious and selective reading of the history of their own immediate ancestors, a political practice reminiscent of Third Period Stalinism with a strong admixture of opportunism, and an authoritarian, at times even thuggish, internal regime.

I strongly suspect that Gerry Downing does not have a high opinion of many of these "Trotskyists" either, but many of them are the "left Trotskyists" which he believes should be the prime focus of any regroupment project; otherwise, they are within the ambit of "all those who call themselves Trotskyist" to which he also wishes to orient himself. Life is too short to spend trying to save the "Trotskyist" souls of these myriad, disparate groupuscules.

However, I do not propose abandonment of the regroupment perspective, merely the abandonment of any notion of regroupment between and exclusive to groups claiming to be Trotskyist. If such a thing were possible, and I think it is not, it would be at best a mini-international of cadres, representing only itself. (This objection was made by, among others, Isaac Deutscher, to the founding of the Fourth International (FI). There was a strong element of truth in this charge, mitigated by the then political situation: oncoming world war and the need to form a pole of attraction away from Stalinism and Social Democracy as a matter of extreme urgency. Also we should not overlook the relative political homogeneity of Trotskyism at that time.) It therefore follows that the national and international regroupment we should be aiming for should not be solely "Trotskyist", either by an amalgam of existing groups or by one eating up the rest, nor should Trotskyists even, necessarily, be a majority.

I realise that there have been earlier versions of this project that have involved wholesale adaptation to Castro, Maurice Bishop and the ANC – or, in its latest version the "recomposition" of the labour movement, which involves blurring the differences between reformism and revolutionary politics and, in fact, saying to the Stalinists that now that the Soviet Union has collapsed under the weight of its own rottenness, we should let bygones be bygones. (Here I have to disagree with Dave Osler in What Next? No.6.)

We must aim to build a revolutionary current in the labour movement. Criticisms of the "Trotskyists in a minority" project have some validity only on the assumption that post-Trotsky Trotskyism is revolutionary politics, and vice versa. However, in rejecting a regroupment perspective of splits and fusions solely among ostensibly Trotskyist organisations in favour of a regroupment between revolutionaries (including Trotskyists) with an orientation to the labour movement and the class conscious working class vanguard, we would be attempting a synthesis which redefines revolutionary politics and, in so doing, to some extent, defines "Trotskyism" as it has been understood for the past fifty years out of existence.

Obviously, with its theoretical heritage – the transitional method, the united front, the critique of the labour bureaucracy – Trotskyism in its most healthy, most creative and least sectarian form is likely to dominate politically the revolutionary current, and at the moment, the "other forces" exist more as a long-term perspective rather than as actuality. Nevertheless, such long-term perspectives should determine our orientation, and events in East Asia and in Western Europe show the potential for a rebuilding of working class militancy and, in the case of the protests at Renault Vilvoorde, the potential for international workers’ unity. In Britain, militants disgusted by New Labour’s reactionary, anti-working class policies or by the tin-pot Stalinism of Scargill’s SLP will be looking for alternatives. There is the possibility, in the next few years, of a top-to-bottom split in the Labour Party, to the left, or, possibly, to the right. The repercussions of this may provide opportunities for revolutionaries. I realise that these are only possibilities at present, but I would rather put my money on them to produce a revolutionary current in the labour movement that on the Byzantine intrigues of "Trotskyist" sects any day of the week.

The above has implications for the regroupment project in so far as it is based on a reconstruction of the Fourth International. Basically, I think we should consider whether it is time we gave the FI a decent burial. Already a rump in comparison with the original project (the "Bloc of Four" etc), it was proclaimed, but never built, on the basis of a monumental political gamble which failed to come off. Some of the reasons for the FI’s failure to become politically viable are not, I imagine, controversial: smallness, isolation, the death of many of its most talented cadres at the hands of the Stalinists and fascists, and, not least, the fact that Trotsky’s political perspectives for World War Two and after were not realised.

But I think we have been perhaps too generous in our assessment of the political shape of the pre- and post-war FI and to its disastrous leadership by the crudely pragmatic, parochial US Socialist Workers Party. By rights, and with the benefit of hindsight, the FI should possibly have been wound up before it split in 1953, on the grounds that events had overtaken the basis for its existence. Its cadres could have engaged in the preparatory programmatic work necessary to regroup and politically re-arm revolutionary Marxists in a period of economic boom, recognising the post-war reality and the crucial role in this reality (in Western Europe) of the new historic bloc of finance capital, the state, social democracy and the labour bureaucracy. They could have elaborated, and re-elaborated, in the light of the post-war experience, the revolutionary programme with regard to women’s liberation, the anti-colonial struggles and the environment.

However, on the whole, these generals without an army did none of these things, but locked themselves in a crisis-mongering, catastrophist time-warp, telling the working class (often in the quaintly dated phraseology of the 1930s and ’40s), on first a manual and then an electric typewriter, then on an Amstrad, then on Word Perfect and now in Cyberspace, that "mankind’s productive forces stagnate [and] ... new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth". At the same time they adapted to Stalinism, nationalism, social-democracy, guerillaism, and "movementism", adopting, eclectically, the best and the worst of environmentalism, feminism, or lesbian and gay liberation, or, in the case of Healy and Grant, and others, ignoring them altogether. I am not adopting a "bad person" view of history here. No one, to my knowledge, has ever set out with the intention of building a sect. Leaving aside the bizarre and sinister gangsterism of Healy and his like, many militants, with varying degrees of sophistication and pragmatism, were trying to make the best sense they could of the post-war reality, in relative isolation from the workers’ movement and armed with the flawed catastrophism inherited from the Fourth International which had seen the Second World War as a re-run of the First.

It has been argued that we should not write off the fragments of the FI, on the basis that they have not crossed into the camp of counter-revolution. I think this is mechanical and it misses the point. The Second and Third Internationals attained, in many countries, the leadership of the working class. Their organisations and apparatus were large, including millions of workers, students and intellectuals. Those of the Fourth International never achieved that position, with the exception of the Vietnamese (who were massacred) and the Ceylonese (of whom possibly most of the leadership were not and did not claim to be Trotskyist). In terms of the big picture, whether or not they had crossed class lines was, in fact, irrelevant. The crisis of post-Trotsky Trotskyism has taken a different form from that of social democracy and Stalinism. Taken as a whole, it has not passed into the same class camp as the other two, and rather than a 1914 or a 1933, there has been a comparatively slow process of diffusion and fragmentation, so that by the time of the Polish events of 1980-81 you could find a Trotskyist group calling for "Solidarity to Power", or another calling for it to be suppressed by the Stalinist police state.

The Yugoslav wars of 1991-94, and the failure by most Trotskyists to support the defence of multi-ethnic Bosnia-Hercegovina against nationalist terror, surely shows the long-running crisis of post-Trotsky Trotskyism at its very apotheosis. The multiplicity of different positions, most of them wrong, and the methodology, if you can call it that, employed (reliance on nationalist propaganda of Serbs or Croats, the rehashing of Foreign Office communiqu‚s, or the parroting of decades-old quotations, all dressed up as "Marxism") constitute as frank an admission of political incompetence and bankruptcy as it is possible to get. The United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) actually emerges with some credit, despite the fact that its pro-Bosnia positions were based somewhat on liberalism and coupled with support for Croatia, in that it organised, with help from other groups, practical aid for the multi-ethnic workers’ centres of Bosnia. The nutritional value of flour, pasta and cooking oil is, I think, superior to that of the bad advice given to the Bosnians in the aggregated articles, documents and theses of most of the world’s Trotskyists.

The purpose of this example, and indeed this whole article, is not to write off as useless all those groups and individuals who regard themselves as Trotskyist. I have been for nearly twenty years, and still am, part of that milieu myself. I am arguing that the process of diffusion and fragmentation over the past half-century means that is now impossible to speak of "Trotskyism" as a coherent and recognisable body of theory and practice. Those standing in that tradition may be serious and dedicated militants, trying to use and develop the theoretical arsenal of revolutionary Marxism to make sense of the world and try to change it; on the other hand they may be doctrinaire, sectarian bible-thumpers, to whom their own separateness is everything, to whom the very notion of regroupment is a manoeuvre to grab half a dozen recruits. What separates them is vastly more important than any shared origin in the break-up of the Fourth International.

The crisis of post-Trotsky Trotskyism meant that attempts to develop Marxist theory and understanding of the world were generally left to others. For example: history, culture and the "British" question – New Left Review; the USSR – those around Critique, and various Bukharinites; both "green" politics, and women’s liberation – a host of non-Trotskyist activists and academics. You don’t have to agree with the method of analysis or the conclusions of these people to admit that what they have produced is usually more stimulating and more profound than anything in the majority of the Trotskyist publications. Of course there are exceptions, and I am not suggesting that post-Trotsky Trotskyists are less brainy, just less curious, possibly. Small wonder, however, if for them all the theory has already been written and all that’s needed is for history to give them the nod to realise their destiny in resolving the crisis of leadership.

What of the "left Trotskyism" to which Gerry Downing attaches so much importance, but which he never defines exactly? It is part of the problem which it has set out to solve (and in saying this I recognise that I come from this tendency myself). Its answer to opportunism and liquidationism was the reassertion of "consistent" or "orthodox" Trotskyism, as some termed it: the Transitional Programme and its method, political revolution in the USSR, Eastern Europe and China, Permanent Revolution, and, from the standpoint of the canon of Trotsky, pointing out, generally correctly, where the larger currents led by Mandel, Healy and Lambert had been in error.

In the case of the Workers Socialist League (WSL), arguably the most serious and best-known of these groups there were attempts to develop and test out theory and practice in its base in Cowley. The contradiction was that at the same time as they criticised the USFI and the other major currents as having both been unable to come to terms with the non-fulfilment of Trotsky’s pre-war perspectives, they themselves resorted to doctrinaire orthodoxy. The Trotskyist International Liaison Committee (TILC), the international tendency set up by the WSL, announced its presence with a declaration of the continuing validity of a then 40-year-old action programme ("The Transitional Programme – Valid Today"). Criticisms of Mandel and others might have been correct, in purely formal terms, but the defence of positions, not combined with the development of programme and method, meant that the political stultification and eventual split and collapse of its successor, the International Trotskyist Committee (ITC), was inevitable.

Primarily, the TILC and ITC reasserted the Transitional Programme, at the expense of developing and updating it, and at the expense of a critical assessment. One does not have to accept Gramsci’s criticism that Trotsky failed to make complete break from the mechanical Marxism of the Second International (and I don’t) to see that there are problems with, for example: "... the approaching wave will raise it [the FI] on its crest." At best, this is open to misinterpretation, or was a case of Trotsky the journalist getting the better of Trotsky the dialectician; at worst, I think it is just wrong. Either way, an over-literal interpretation of formulations of this kind have put us in the mess we’re in.

Workers Power, another group in the "left Trotskyist" camp, also appears to be mired in a sterile orthodoxy. It responds to debate on revolutionary regroupment with all the hauteur one is entitled to expect from the self-designated heirs of Lenin and Trotsky. Only a few dozen strong, it nevertheless refers to its competitors as "tiny sects", and uses "centrist" as a term of exclusion and abuse, repeating like a mantra a 1930s formulation by Trotsky on centrism, apparently indifferent to the fact that this concerned large organisations, proletarian in composition, vacillating between social democracy and the Comintern (and Trotsky), not tiny Trotskyist-derived groups of a few dozen. As political debate, or an attempt to solve the problems of the revolutionary left, it is not even second rate.

The collapse of Stalinism has brought the "Trotskyist" chickens home to roost. Reliance on 50-year-old positions in Revolution Betrayed and In Defence of Marxism as if they were written last week, was no basis for a comprehensive analysis of the post-Stalin USSR, let alone Eastern Europe (and how similar were, say, Hungary and Albania?), China, Vietnam and Cuba. It is not surprising that positions as divergent as those of the Lambertists and the Spartacists were claimed to be derived from Trotsky’s own positions. I am sure that you can use these writings to argue for both these positions. Revolution Betrayed was an attempt to analyse the contradictory nature of the USSR, at the height of Stalin’s terror, during the drive to industrialisation and when the Soviet bureaucracy was a new and still unstable phenomenon. It was written from exile, using that information which was available. Its analysis is provisional, and it says so. You could probably base an ultra-Soviet defencist position on some of it, such as the chapter "What Has Been Achieved?" Elsewhere, "Whither the Soviet Union?" takes a pessimistic, or realistic, look at bureaucratisation and its inevitably restorationist dynamic. Some of the analysis is incisive and brilliant, but ten years after publication it was already dated, even more so twenty, and thirty years later. Poor old Trotsky. If he’d known how throughout the reigns of Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev, his epigones would be still scanning his provisional analyses, decades later, for the "correct position", I wonder if he’d have concentrated full-time on his rabbits and cacti.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the reaction among the "lefts" to the collapse of the USSR has been characterised by conservatism and formalism, such as the insistence that capitalism can only be restored by civil war: no civil war ergo no capitalist restoration, or by the inventing of bogus categories such as "moribund workers’ state" (which rather begs the question as to what condition the workers’ state in the USSR was in before 1991!).

The essence of the problem, therefore, is politics based primarily on the defence of positions which are decades old. Those positions were elaborated in the heat of struggle. They are provisional, incomplete, and of their time and place. "Consistent Trotskyism" consists of the steadfast defence of these positions, and that’s it. Politics then consists of filling in the gaps in thought, word and deed. Of course, it’s a highly speculative exercise. With breathtaking cynicism (it must run in the family) Herbert Morrison once defined socialism as what Labour governments did. "Consistent Trotskyists" define "consistent Trotskyism" as being what "consistent Trotskyists" do. (I sometimes wonder how those "consistent Trotskyists" who gave Mawhinney’s suit the Jackson Pollock look can explain themselves. Possibly they have discarded the Transitional Programme for Beadle’s About as a source of political inspiration.)

Theologians have been engaged in biblical exegesis for centuries, and it is a truism to say that whether they are Jesuits or Wee Frees, they can study the Old and New Testaments and get what they want out of them. That must not be the method of revolutionary Marxism. The theoretical and practical achievements of Marx and Engels were not discarded immediately that they ceased to be practically relevant (otherwise, the Communist Manifesto would have been "out of date’" by 1851), but neither were they preserved in amber, as the Second International and the Mensheviks sought to do, in opposition to Lenin and Trotsky.

The same must apply to Trotsky, and Trotskyism, by which I mean the form taken by revolutionary Marxism in the context of the degeneration of the Comintern. (Trotsky often referred to "so-called Trotskyism", preferring not to regard it as a political category in its own right). The theory of Permanent Revolution, and its concept of combined and unequal development, the analysis of the rise of the Soviet bureaucracy, the Transitional Method, and the United Front are all part of the theoretical arsenal of revolutionary Marxism. In the hands of mutually anathematising sects they are as the remains of classical cities used by barbarians to build sheep pens. To use one of Trotsky’s phrases, we must learn to think. As well as working for regroupment on the lines argued for above, we must critically reassess aspects of revolutionary Marxism, and I have made a non-exhaustive list below. Some are not burning issues for the class, now, but are subjects for study and discussion.

Strategy: I think Trotskyism has always been weak on this. Gramsci criticised Trotsky, in the 1930s, as a politician of the frontal assault in a period of defeats. Much of Gramsci’s criticism of Trotsky is incorrect and ill-informed, because he was working from inaccurate information, or in factional heat. Even if one doesn’t agree with this particular statement, some of Trotsky’s greatest theoretical and practical achievements were concerned with the struggle for power: either the workers seizing power, or maintaining it, or the fascists being prevented from seizing it. I think Trotsky underestimated the hold of parliamentary democracy in Western European political culture, and with regard to World War Two, underestimated the extent to which the ruling classes of the Allies were able to mobilise the working class behind them in a war for "democracy": in other words, he saw the Second World War as being a re-run of the First. (As Trotsky died when the war was less than a year old, this criticism has to be a qualified one. To his successors we must be less forgiving.) Trotskyism was never able to come to terms with the long boom and conditions of relative stability, and was forced to seek refuge in, variously, "movementism" (USFI), catastrophism (Healyism), social democratic routinism (Lambertism) or an odd combination of these last two (Militant). We need to look at how we can develop a hegemonic (or, perhaps more accurately, a counter-hegemonic) project based on the power, and the need, of the working class to run society. The reduction of this question to purely one of leadership is a symptom of the voluntarism which is a weakness of Trotskyism. (Militant’s Labour Party project was, at least, a sign of a realisation of the need for some sort of a strategy, whatever else was wrong with it.)

An analysis of the political economy of the USSR, post 1940, and of the Comecon states: so far as I can see, the most serious work has been done by Critique, or by other, non-Trotskyist, academics.

What Is To Be Done?: revolutionary Marxists should stop venerating or making excuses for this text, written for work in an semi-Asiatic police state almost 100 years ago. Its author was obliged to rethink his ideas on the party by 1905, let alone by 1917. Progress Publishers produced it as part of the Lenin cult. Its main function now is to legitimise the behaviour of small-time autocrats and the imposition of a distorted, "security"-obsessed, over-centralised version of democratic centralism. That is not to say that is its only function, or that it has no value today. However, it should by understood firmly in its context.

Trotskyists have never been critical enough of the Bolsheviks in power prior to the foundation of the Left Opposition. I think this reflects the fact that Trotsky himself was a party loyalist par excellence (possibly trying to make up for his own past) and even after 1923 conducted his struggle strictly within the confines of the party. A frank and critical reappraisal is required of Trotsky’s attitude towards the trade unions and the militarisation of labour. Likewise the Bolsheviks’ attitude towards other workers’ parties: the Mensheviks, and particularly the Left Mensheviks, as well as the Left Communists etc, which was too unremittingly harsh, whatever those parties’ mistakes (I am distinguishing them from the Social Revolutionaries who took up arms against the Soviet state).

We should say that the suppression of the Kronstadt mutiny was wrong, whether or not we agree with the politics of the mutineers. The Anarchists and Victor Serge have been right in raising this. Trotskyists have ended up defending it by default, because Trotsky supported it. They have accepted too easily the official Soviet version, which casts the mutineers either as conscious counter-revolutionaries or as easily manipulated peasant lads. The ban on factions at the Tenth Congress was wrong, and prepared the road for the repression of the Left Opposition. This ban has been justified as preventing a split in the party, but in fact it speeded up the party’s degeneration into an administrative apparatus. In many ways it was a logical corollary of the banning of other parties: a one-party state is in effect a no-party state. (We should look again at the arguments of the Democratic Centralist opposition on party democracy.)

The Bolsheviks were forced to take extraordinary and harsh measures because of the threat to the new state from the Whites and the imperialists, and the hostility or non-cooperation from other Soviet parties, as well as the state of the economy. In this situation, with the revolution isolated, the revolutionary ideal, of the rule of contending but comradely workers’ parties through the Soviets, was always going to be difficult to realise. However, I think that once the civil war was won and the Allies had backed off, the extraordinary measures had to a large extent created their own logic. The Bolsheviks found it difficult to distinguish between comradely criticism or justified complaints from otherwise loyal workers, on the one hand, and hostility and sabotage on the other. They began to make a virtue out of necessity, resulting in the cult of the vanguard party, aped by Stalinists and Trotskyists alike elsewhere.

We should look critically at some aspects of the struggle of the Left Opposition. In particular, the LO was mistaken in believing, as it did, that Bukharin and the Right Opposition was the main enemy. Whatever the differences with the Bukharinites on the economy (and Moshe Lewin makes an interesting case that vis-à-vis the Stalin bloc, there was an effective convergence of the programmes of the Left and Right Oppositions) this should not have prevented a bloc on the question of party democracy. Had the Right Opposition won out, would the effect on the working class, or on the whole country resembled in its scale the purges, forced collectivisation, the betrayal of Germany and Spain? No; Stalin was the main enemy. I think this is important because the misestimation of Stalin and Bukharin was the reason why so many of the Left Opposition, including some of the most talented of its leadership capitulated to Stalin after 1928: they took at face value Stalin’s industrialisation-by-terror as the implementation, in some form, of the Left Opposition’s own programme. The fact that some Trotskyists still regard a bureaucratically deformed "plan" (sic) as proof of the superiority of "socialist" planning (and accuse any nay-sayers of "Stalinophobia") suggests that the errors of Preobrazhensky, Radek, and the others, haunt us still.

Nick Davies was writing in a personal capacity.