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After Trotskyism, what? Some personal thoughts
By Arash Azizi
“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”
— Karl Marx
— Karl Marx
December 31, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — A few months ago, I left the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), an organization of which I had been a member for more than seven years. Many friends and comrades wrote to ask me to outline the reasons for this decision. I write these lines primarily for them. As someone who had recruited many to the ranks of the IMT, I felt responsible to explain why I had left it and what path do I see ahead in the fight for socialism. I don’t claim to have found a magical formula or the answer to all my questions but hope that these humble lines will be of interest to some.
I should start by saying that the sad ultra-left turn that IMT has taken in the last few years surely did accelerate my decision. Abandoning of the fundamental orientation to the Labour Party in Britain (signaled by the change in the paper’s masthead) which happened to come only months before the historic election of Jeremy Corbyn; similar distancing from the traditional organizations of the working class in other countries; advocating abstention in the Brexit referendum; and the refusal to endorse Bernie Sanders’s campaign are just some examples. But it would be dishonest if I pretended that this turn was my ultimate reason and that all I long for is a pre-turn IMT or a similar Trotskyist organization. It is true that by reflecting on my years of political activity, and by taking into account the developments of the last few years, I have come to the conclusion that orthodox “Trotskyism”, as we know it, is no longer the path forward for the working class and for the cause of a better world. We need new political strategies for the epoch we are in.
My Trotskyist experience
When I joined the IMT in late 2008, few months after I had left my native Iran for Canada, this wasn’t out of a whim. For about five years I had been a member of Worker-Communist Party of Iran (WPI), an Iranian organization that could be described as belonging to the Left Communist and Council Communist tradition. I had joined it at the age of 15 for the simple reason that it was the only Marxist organization I knew that dared to organize under the authoritarian Islamist regime that reigns in Iran. As I had started a process of questioning the WPI, and as I needed a political home in Canada, I embarked on a study of the international left from the times of Marx and Engels down to the currently existing international organizations and their branches in Canada. I chose IMT because it stood on unapologetic socialist politics (of much importance to me, it didn’t follow much of the international left by supporting the Tehran regime); because the Trotskyist Anti-Stalinism appealed to me; because its political strategy of working inside the New Democratic Party (NDP) to win a majority for Marxist ideas in the country’s main working-class party seemed plausible; and because it boasted many hard-working people who took their politics seriously.
I haven’t changed my mind on any of those reasons but it is only after a sustained period that you start finding holes and problems; you can try to fix some of those problems and tolerate others (since I never believed that membership in an organization should be tantamount to agreeing with every single thing about it) but you then recognize that some of the problems are in the DNA of the group. It has inherited them from a political tradition and, unless there is a commitment on part of a significant number of its leaders, they are not going to change.
What are these problems, where do they come from and how can we overcome them?
1) Basis of unity — the problem of sectarianism
Any political group has a criteria for its membership, a basis of unity that brings people together as they strive for a goal. Getting such a basis right is a difficult task and easier said than done, especially for a Marxist organization. How do you gather around the largest possible number of people possible while making sure that your group is not diluted in the goals it pursues? How can you ensure the maximum amount of discipline and seriousness in work while also letting people who can’t commit as much time or resources participate?
I have always believed that this basis of unity needs to be political and around the goals that we all strive for. If people share the fundamental socialist goal (a world free of classes where production is organized on the basis of need not profit) and basic strategies and stances of a political group in any given period, they should be encouraged to join.
As members of IMT would concede this isn’t the real basis of unity for this organization. To be a member of the IMT, you’d need to share in an article of faith that I’ll try to honestly summarize as such: “IMT [with a membership that is today probably around 2000 worldwide, at most] is the only genuine Marxist organization on the planet. It alone has the “correct ideas” [an astonishing term that even the Catholic Church doesn’t use with such certitude], which are encapsulated in the ideas of Marx, Lenin, Engels and Trotsky [maybe, a book or two by Rosa Luxembourg] and those continued by Ted Grant and the IMT. It alone can offer the workers the revolutionary leadership that is needed to win power and build socialism.”
If you believe in this Article One, it would follow that since the only organization that is capable of leading the workers to power is yours, and since it is currently minuscule, your strategy is simple: Build your own organization, around that very narrow basis of unity, even if it means recruiting only a handful of people every month. You are building a “cadre organization” which means you’ll only wants as members those who are ready to commit themselves to the article of faith in its entirety.
From such self-applause, bizarre conclusion will follow: In IMT, you’d often hear that if a revolutionary movement happens while IMT is still a small organization this is a bad thing since “we need time to prepare”. It also follows that the works of no Marxist writer or theoretician after Trotsky’s death in 1940 is worth considering, except for the few fellows that have had the honor of working with the IMT. I remember asking a leading member of the Italian section if he could recommend any good Italian Marxist writers. Surely, with such a strong communist party with millions of members and the allegiance of the majority of the country’s intelligentsia, there should be some bright names. The response was shocking: None. No one. He jokingly said: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky!
This is Sectarianism 101. Instead of defining your political identity and basis of unity around goals and ideals in which others can share, you define it in a way that is akin to a narrow religious organization. Every organization will have some traditions and some historical identity of which it is proud. Every organization should believe in its own unique ability to do grand tasks and great things (otherwise, why bother?) But it is all a matter of degree. Are you flexible enough to concede that not all the truth might rest with you? Will you keep yourself current by taking in the developments in the world around you? Are you ready to grow and change, while keeping true to your basic goals, by embracing the new membership that each generation brings? Are you able to keep yourself intact after you reach a certain number?
2) A history of failure
This last question is one that few Trotskyist groups have ever been forced to ask. Being scattered into small groups of usually no more than a few dozen individuals is the curse that has followed Trotskyism since the founding of the Fourth International (FI) in 1938. At its foundation, the FI didn’t have many more members than IMT does today and the same is basically true for all dozen or so international Trotskyist organizations during their entire history, with minor exceptions.
Now, for much of this period, this smallness was due to a brutal policy of oppression. Trotsky and his followers were some of the most persecuted people on the planet in the post-war period. Imagine being active in a situation in which, in addition to the usual animosity of the state and the capital, you’d have to battle large socialist states and massive communist parties around the world who, at times, would even go to the length of physically exterminating you. This wasn’t only political competition!
But it is perhaps precisely because of this that Trotskyism ended up developing a strange martyrdom complex where you take solace in being ‘correct’ (as your founder was, after all, one of the most brilliant Marxists and revolutionaries to have ever lived) and don’t mind your small size much.
It is unlikely that Trotsky himself, who only saw two years of the FI’s activity before being brutally murdered on the orders of Stalin, would have ever agreed that, in the long-term, such a perspective (of maintaining small organizations at any rate) makes sense.
When the FI was founded in 1938, Trotsky believed that within a decade, it would come to encompass millions of workers and surpass both the Second and Third Internationals. It was perhaps obvious falsification of such a perspective by history that confused the founding leaders of the FI and led into split after split in the organization, leaving it with the often-comical legacy of many grand sounding names and few members.
Should the FI have ever been founded as a separate organization or should Trotsky’s supporters have organized differently? What would have been the correct strategy in the post-war period? These are questions of history and I don’t intend to pursue them here. I also don’t want to pretend there are any easy answers. But the question we must ask ourselves is not for 1945 but for 2016.
If the policy of building a small cadre “Bolshevik” organization from three members up has consistently failed, why continue it? Why spend all your energy on maintaining for your group a political identity that has never been successful and that belonged to a specific period? Why maintaining a Bolshevik reenactment group instead of an organization that seeks to unite the highest number of people in fight for a socialist world?
3) McDonalds Internationalism
A corollary of the belief that only your organization has the “correct ideas” is the belief that if you are not present in a country, the correct way to advance there is to build a new group. Instead of taking into account the traditions of leftist organizing in other countries and attempting to learn from it, you’ll operate around what I’ve termed the McDonalds Internationalism. This isn’t a perspective of internationalist proletarian solidarity but a mentality of a franchise restaurant, like McDonalds, which is trying to raid other markets and open up shop in new places.
In the case of Iran, I have seen the tragic results of such ‘internationalism’. Along with a couple of other Iranian comrades, I was tasked with building an Iranian group for the IMT. One of these comrades was a full-time worker for the IMT with no political past in Iran since he had lived abroad almost his entire life. Any attempt to build a group that was independent, able to stand on its own feet, develop its own thought and strategies and be steeped in the political traditions of the Iranian left was stymied. “There are no Marxists in Iran other than us,” he’d often say. The Iranian communist movement goes back to 1920 and it has had all sorts of experiences, including that of state power in short periods. According to the IMT, this rich tradition offered nothing and all we had to do was translate the articles of the international to Persian.
This sort of McDonalds internationalism, when coupled with the IMT’s sectarianism, makes a mockery out of the real process of international relations between socialist organizations in different countries.
4) Basic questions of strategy
But what of the central question of strategy? What is the basic IMT strategy and what do I see wrong with it?
The founding document of the Trotskyist movement, the Transitional Program (1938), is known for a bold claim: “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.”
As it happens, I still agree with this basic sentence. As much as Anarchists or other lovers of “from below” processes might not want to believe, the role of political leadership (which I see as a political party or, to use Marta Harnecker’s term, a political instrument) is indispensable to historical change. In Trotsky’s lasting image, the political party is like a piston box that guides the steam-like energy of the masses.
But if we are to go beyond this level of abstraction and this ‘basic truth’, what are the specific strategies that are needed today in fighting for improvement in the lives of the working people and for the ultimate overthrowing of capitalism and building of socialism? Linked with this question is our conception of socialism. How is it going to look like? And how do we move from A (today’s world) to B (the post-capitalist, socialist world)?
Since a healthy democratic socialist society that could last more than a short period has never been built in human history, much of this remains ground for fresh thinking and contribution. IMT’s answers, however, are rather simple. The model of successful organization and strategy is that of the Russian Bolshevik Party and conception of socialism that of the early Soviet regime.
Before even attempting to criticize such notions, I’d ask you to think of this: Isn’t it shocking that in 2016, our conception of a political instrument should be based on a political party that had to operate in a vastly different environment? And based on a regime that, ultimately, led to the nightmare of Stalinism? (To say that the Bolshevik regime ‘led’ to the Stalinist nightmare is not to repeat the bourgeois assertion that Leninism would have inevitably led to Stalinism. But it is to acknowledge that there were probably some flaws in the system that made the victory of Stalinism possible and for the ‘river of blood’ to flow and separate the early genuine revolutionary state from Stalinism).
But such questions are not even asked in most Trotskyist organizations. Elections are dismissed as ‘bourgeois democracy’ and civil and political rights decried as ‘bourgeois formality’. All experiences of 20th century socialism, from China and Tanzania to Italy and Japan, are decried as “Stalinism”. And there is a pretense that there are easy answers to the questions of building a successful socialist economy, polity and judicial system. If only the men with “correct ideas” were at the helm!
The last thing the revolutionary left of the 21st century needs is such stymied thinking that bases itself only on the writing of a few men. We need to instead face reality and offer strategies, different ones in different countries, that are meant for 2016 not nostalgias of the past. This would also be in true spirit of the great giants of the past like Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, not upholding of everything they’ve ever said as unchangeable dogma.
What is to be done?
The above doesn’t amount to anything like a coherent criticism of the IMT and its Trotskyist model and it didn’t intend to. As I said at the outset, these are merely some humble personal thoughts.
And what of the way forward?
Without pretending to have easy, thorough answers, these are, again, some personal thoughts:
Marxists and those (like myself) who have an affinity for the 1917 tradition need to unite with others around the political and practical double goals of: 1) improving the lives of the working people and the oppressed here and now, and; 2) striving at a radical transformation of society and building of a socialist alternative to capitalism.
The strategies toward these goals will differ in different countries, based on their political conditions, the balance of classes and the existing organizations and traditions. In general, however, there is a basic fact that the revolutionary left needs to come to peace with: It needs to win power by convincing a majority of a population to support its vision. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean basically turning into an electoral machine. To slightly paraphrase Eugene Debs, elections are to socialism what a menu is to a meal. It is a fact, however, that the liberal democratic order, a system in which the government of the day is elected on the basis of universal suffrage, is now dominant across much of the globe (it is worth remembering that in Lenin’s time, it was almost entirely non-existent, hence a long Marxist struggle for universal suffrage) and wherever it isn’t, it is probably an imperative for us to unite with liberals for democratic goals. Democratic conditions can actually offer an excellent opportunity for socialists: Build support for our vision; convince a majority that we can offer a workable, real socialist alternative; and come to power and start implementing it! Of course, there would be resistant from the capitalist class and, of course, our strategy needs to take that into account too. But to move against a democratically-elected government is not an easy task, especially if it is based on an active support of millions of workers.
This might seem very mundane at the first glance but, ask yourself, how many socialists and revolutionaries are asking themselves: How can we build an organization that is ready to win support of the majority and form a government? How many are telling themselves: “The test of socialist politics is how I can win over large numbers of people, which is possible by meeting them where they are at, not by trying to be the most left-wing guy in the room”?
In asking such questions, we’d need to be forward-looking and accept that not all differences need to be solved for leftist to unite in an organization. It is silly for socialists not to be organizationally united in pursuit of goals today because they disagree over the class nature of the Soviet Union or because they have a slightly different take on the Palestinian struggle.
Building of leftist institutions that are something beyond their name, real organizations that can represent a significant portion of a country’s politics, is a very difficult task but it is rewarding at the end. It will influence the lives of the working people here and now, it will consolidate our power and it will offer a clear route to power. It will also create a space that could help blossom the kind of thinking that is needed to address the massive questions that we will face if we are to actually conduct the mammoth task of transition to socialism.
Needless to say, in building such vehicles we should never abandon the organizations that the working class has already built which, almost all over the world, means the parties that historically belong to the Second or Third Internationals. One of the mistakes of the left has been prematurely abandoning these organizations whereas the recent victory of Corbyn in the UK shows that even if your organization is led by the likes of Tony Blair, there is a chance that the left could come to power in them and start their transformation.
What we need more than ever is an end to the mentality of small circles and an audacity to prepare for real socialist change in our own lifetimes. It is time to offer the working people, our people, the political instrument that it deserves.