Learning From Trotsky

by Pham Binh on July 16, 2012

Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, better known as Leon Trotsky.

First published by Anticapitalists.org.

Andy Yorke’s response to my article “Trotskyism” contains so many misrepresentations of what I wrote it is hard to know where to begin a reply. This is the second time Workers Power have mischaracterized my stance on party-building questions. The odd thing is that this second response by Andy Yorke is actually a confirmation of my central arguments about Trotskyism’s endemic problems.

Two Strawmen

Yorke wastes words attacking two claims I never made: that Trotskyism has a monopoly on the sect form (unlike Maoism or anarchism) and that Trotskyist forces never led mass struggles.

The central point of my essay on Trotskyism is that the movement’s practices are fundamentally at odds with those of Lenin and the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) and that, as a result, no Trotskyist organization in the world in eight decades has become a mass party, an actual vanguard party that commands the allegiance, respect, and attention of tens of thousands of militant workers and oppressed people. This is true even in cases where Trotskyists played an outstanding role in struggles, and Yorke provides many examples of this.

The Trotskyist movement has always been and will always be an ideological vanguard unless and until it changes what it does in practice and how it operates.

Trotsky and Trotskyism

Yorke claims that I “hardly criticise the main ideas or practice of Leon Trotsky.” A careful reading of the text Yorke is responding to shows that I do indeed criticize Trotsky but not in the usual, Trotskyist way (hyperbolic denunciation, vilification, and personalistic attacks).

In that essay I did not go into detail of what my view of Trotsky’s political mistakes were because:

1) He is dead and has no chance to respond or defend his actions.

2) He was not operating in anything close to normal circumstances, living on the run, watching his family members being murdered one by one, fearing assassination at every turn, being forced to move from country to country every few years. This was hardly the kind of environment conducive to making sound political decisions or establishing a political method that would stand the test of decades and therefore it would be unseemly to attack him for his every error when few of us would be willing to pay the price he did fighting for his beliefs.

3) Most importantly, his followers and successors are more responsible for the fate of the Trotskyist movement than Trotsky is since he was killed in 1940 while has Trotskyism has lived on for over 80 years. We should not blame someone who was assassinated seven decades ago for the actions of his followers in 1948, 1968, or 2008, just as we should not lay the blame for the terrible things done in the name of Christianity on the shoulders of a Jerusalem carpenter who was crucified nearly 2,000 years ago.

That said, no one in the Trotskyist movement has accomplished half as much as Trotsky did, so it’s no surprise that the movement that bears his name still bears the heavy imprint of his methods and actions even now.  He was a giant among midgets.

Trotskyism’s one-sided focus on political programs, ideas, and lines began with Trotsky himself, as the quote I cited from his writings on Germany in the 1930s makes clear:

Numerically the Left Opposition in Germany is weak. But its political influence may prove decisive on the given, sharp, historical turn. As the switchman, by the timely turn of the switch, shifts a heavily laden train onto different tracks, so the small Opposition, by a strong and sure turn of the ideological switch, can compel the train of the German Communist Party, and the still heavier train  of the German proletariat, to go on in a different direction.

Trotsky wrote in a similar vein in 1931 in The Permanent Revolution:

The great historical significance of Lenin’s policy was still unclear to me at that time, his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purpose of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party.

Following Trotsky, James Cannon, leader of the Socialist Workers Party wrote:

Trotsky himself believed that ideas are the greatest power in the world. Their authors may be killed, but ideas, once promulgated, live their own life. If they are correct ideas, they make their way through all obstacles. This was the central, dominating concept of comrade Trotsky’s philosophy. He explained it to us many, many times. He once wrote: “It is not the party that makes the program [the idea]; it is the program that makes the party.” In a personal letter to me, he once wrote: “We work with the most correct and powerful ideas in the world, with inadequate numerical forces and material means. But correct ideas, in the long run, always conquer and make available for themselves the necessary material means and forces.”

The program makes the party, and the idea creates the material means for itself.

Marx had a word for this: idealism.

And it is idealism to argue, as York does, that “[d]uring the crucial opportunities to make a breakthrough from small groups it is largely the centrist deviations and distortions of the Marxist program by these propaganda societies that have blocked the route to growth.”

How do we explain Trotskyism’s propensity for splits?

Since we have Workers Power in Britain and the League for the Fifth International “fighting for the formation of a new world party of socialist revolution” with its undistorted Marxist program against centrists and liquidationists like Pham Binh and the Anti Capitalist Initiative, where is the growth? Does Workers Power have a mass following thanks to its programmatic clarity? Did the RSDLP grow from an organization of dozens in 1899 to tens of thousands in 1906 because its program (however you interpret what a program entails) was free of “centrist deviations and distortions”?

If so, how do we explain Menshevism’s mass following in 1906?

Trotsky’s basic mistake was that he expected his followers to win a mass following because all other trends in the workers’ movement would prove to be politically bankrupt in the course of the struggle, leaving the masses with no other option but the Fourth International (or the Fifth International, as Yorke would prefer). Trotsky’s practical orientation was captured well by Yorke when he argued that, “objectively vital slogans argued for skilfully, even by a relatively small nucleus of cadres, can cut through the obstruction of mass bureaucratic parties.”

Actually, no, it cannot.

The Trotskyists in Germany and Spain in the 1930s completely and utterly failed to “cut through the obstruction of mass bureaucratic parties” with their skillful arguments and vital slogans. In fact, they spent a good amount of time fighting themselves because they treated every disagreement they had with each other as a programmatic debate, giving rise to Trotskyism’s endemic splits, expulsions, and mutual excommunications in spite of the best efforts of Trotsky himself in many cases. This makes Yorke’s claim that I did “not explain how what was so valuable [about Trotskyism] before 1940 became worthless and dangerous thereafter” very far off the mark.

Being right politically is not enough to change the direction of the heavy train of the proletariat because the working class is not a train and does not respond to ideological switches, no matter how correct the switch’s program is, even in cases where adopting said program would help the workers’ movement avoid catastrophe.

Trotsky, Lenin, and the Bolshevik Faction

Lars Lih noted the following with regard to Trotsky’s appraisal of the RSDLP’s 1912 Prague Conference:

Trotsky didn’t have to change his mind about what happened, but only his evaluation of events: he violently attacked Lenin in 1912 for usurping the party in the name of his faction, but later on he felt this usurpation was justified.

I believe this applies with equal force to Trotsky’s perspective on all of the pre-1917 inner-RSDLP disputes involving Lenin and the Bolshevik faction. Trotsky’s assessment of what they did, how they did it, and why never changed, only whether it was positive or negative.

Trotsky viewed Lenin and the Bolsheviks as splitters, disrupters, and usurpers ever since the 1903 congress gave birth to the Menshevik and Bolshevik factions. Lenin’s efforts at rapprochement with the Mensheviks at the 1910 RSDLP plenum and in 1912 against the liquidators did not alter Trotsky’s view. While he sought to unite all trends of the RSDLP no matter how practically incompatible their orientations were and regardless of context, Lenin sought unity on a specific political basis, based on what tasks faced the RSDLP in a particular situation.

Starting in 1899, Lenin used the Iskra newspaper to unite all factions and trends in Russia’s social-democratic movement into a party worthy of the name, including the economists and followers of Rabocheye Mysl, both of whom were targets of Lenin’s polemics in Iskra‘s pages. After the unexpected schism at the 1903 congress that later hardened into the Menshevik and Bolshevik factions, Lenin sought to rally a majority of RSDLP activists to convene a third party congress to iron out and end the squabbling that wrecked the previous one and he succeeded in spring of 1905; the Mensheviks chose not to attend this gathering (meaning they were not forcibly excluded by their Bolshevik counterparts) and did not challenge its legitimacy. Starting in 1908, Lenin viewed liquidationism as a major danger to the whole of the RSDLP, one that threatened Mensheviks and Bolsheviks equally, and so he sought to unite everyone he could to fight the liquidationist trend in a vigorous four-year campaign that culminated in the exclusion of a handful of liquidators from the RSDLP in 1912 by representatives of both factions at a conference held in Prague.

With the onset of World War One and the collapse of the Socialist or Second International, Lenin sought unity with the anti-war (internationalist) elements of other parties of the Second International against its pro-war (defencist) elements. His political hostility to the anti-war Zimmerwald “center” stemmed from their half-hearted, inconsistent opposition to defencism. During the 1917 Russian revolution, Lenin pushed for unity with Mensheviks who took internationalist or anti-defencist positions; this push eventually led to a merger between some Menshevik Internationalists, the Bolshevik faction, and the non-factional interdistrict group that Trotsky led at the August RSDLP congress where Trotsky was elected to the party’s central committee for the first time. Later, the Third or Communist International under Lenin’s leadership sought to engage anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists in addition to the revolutionary elements of the Second International.

Based on this history, it is clear that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not splitters, disrupters, nor usurpers; they did not “weld and temper the core of the truly revolutionary party” through “irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split” as Trotsky mistakenly claimed in 1931. In fact, they constantly sought unity with other revolutionary elements for common struggle against common enemies and even went so far as to make a programmatic compromise on the question of land reform in 1917 shortly after the Soviet government was established.

Trotsky’s erroneous and deeply flawed understanding of the methods of Lenin and the Bolshevik faction undermined his fight against Stalinism in the 1930s and crippled Trotskyism in the decades to follow. For example, in unity talks with the leadership of the SAP, a left breakaway from the German Social Democratic Party, Trotsky “demand[ed] that they take a position on all the international issues of the last ten years…” When they objected, Trotsky responded:

… it is correct for us to demand that those leaders who take upon themselves the initiative of forming an independent proletarian party indicate now their attitude towards the fundamental problems of proletarian strategy and to do that not in general and abstract form, but on the basis of the living experience of the present generation of the world proletariat.

Trotsky’s approach after 1917 could not be more different from Lenin’s approach prior to 1917.

When Lenin began fighting liquidationism within the RSDLP in 1908, he did not demand that Menshevik leaders who agreed to fight it with him adopt the Bolshevik assessment of events like the Russian revolution of 1905. Lenin even formed a political bloc against liquidationism with someone he ridiculed for renouncing armed struggle in the 1905 revolution, Greorgi Plekhanov.

Similarly, the Bolshevik faction did not insist Trotsky adopt their views on the previous decade before electing him to the central committee in 1917. Had they done so, they would have embarked on the Soviet insurrection without Russia’s most brilliant and talented revolutionary leader at its helm and suffered for it.

Nothing was more foreign to Lenin and the Bolshevik faction than this kind of counterproductive sectarianism that Trotsky mistook as their core political method and, regrettably, became the hallmark of the Trotskyist movement.

Trotsky and Us

We should not let the halo of Trotsky’s martyrdom blind us to his methodological mistakes that the Trotskyist movement codified. As Lenin wrote in Left-Wing Communism:

A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfills in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification – that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses.

This essay and the piece Yorke responded to were written with precisely these words in mind.

Trotsky paid a very heavy price for his courageous and lifelong opposition to Stalinism, imperialism, and capitalism. We should critically appraise that opposition, its strengths and its weaknesses, so that we – the future generation he spoke of – may better cleanse life of evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the fullest as he hoped.

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