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Review: Paul Le Blanc and Kunal Chattopadhyay’s Trotsky selection ‘a missed opportunity’

Review by Michael Fisher

Leon Trotsky: Writings in Exile
By Kunal Chattopadhyay and Paul Le Blanc (eds.)
London: Pluto Press, 2012

March 28, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Few figures in the history of socialist politics have attracted as much praise and contempt as Leon Trotsky. Liberals and social democrats loathed him for his unwavering defence of the October revolution and his uncompromising opposition to the politics of reformism. Communists reviled him for opposing Stalin and Stalinism, for declaring the degeneration of the Soviet regime and pouring scorn on the notion of socialism in one country.

To his followers Trotsky embodied the best of Bolshevism: the brilliant theorist of permanent revolution, Stalinism and fascism who never tired of attempting to translate his insights into effective revolutionary practice. While some despaired for the future of socialism amid the triumph of Stalinism and fascism Trotsky insisted that the epoch remained pregnant with revolution. Building a new International, not yielding to reaction, was the urgent task of the day.

Trotsky’s determined optimism and resilience, rooted in his view of capitalism’s historical trajectory, was and remains an important source of inspiration for those who identify with his legacy. Such qualities help explain why in many countries today, following the disintegration of Stalinism and the withering of mass social-democratic parties, Trotskyists are often among the few who remain engaged in explicitly socialist forms of activism in workplaces, unions and communities.

This new edited selection of Trotsky’s writings from the last 11 years of his life aims to introduce Trotsky to contemporary activists. For much of the 20th century it was axiomatic that to be on the radical left meant framing your politics in a vocabulary shaped by the writings of Karl Marx, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky. No longer. Many of those radicalised in recent years by climate change, globalisation and financial collapse are more likely to reference David Graeber and Occupy Wall Street than Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

Kunal Chattopadhyay and Paul Le Blanc believe there is much of value that today’s anti-capitalists can learn from figures such as Trotsky. They are well placed to make such a case. Chattopadhyay’s recent study of Trotsky’s Marxism is a thorough and searching reconstruction of his thought[1]. In addition to many articles and chapters on the history of Trotskyism, Le Blanc has produced a perceptive assessment of communism’s impact in the United States that contains important insights into why attempts to realise Leninist party-building ambitions under contemporary conditions are unlikely to succeed[2].

In the present volume, Chattopadhyay and Paul Le Blanc have selected writings from Trotsky’s “outcast” period: those years when much of his energy was spent on attempting to fashion a new revolutionary vanguard in response to the degeneration of the Soviet state and the communist parties allied to it. We are presented with some of Trotsky’s most absorbing and incisive writings on topics of vital importance to the revolutionary movement of his time: the political nature of Stalinism, how best to battle fascism, the centrality of anti-imperialist struggle to socialist advance, and how to attract workers to the politics of the new Fourth International.

These texts illustrate Trotsky’s many strengths: his considerable literary flair, his resolute internationalism and, in particular, his profound grasp of the many dangers confronting organised labour in Europe as the “undigested barbarism” of fascism gained momentum in Germany.

But what of Trotsky’s weaknesses?

Chattopadhyay and Le Blanc supplement their selection of writings with introductory text that explains their significance and intent, and a useful guide to further reading that lists books and articles that examine Trotsky’s life, times and politics in greater detail. Some of these (such as Marcel van der Linden’s survey of Marxist theories of the Soviet Union[3], and the essays collected in Ticktin and Cox’s volume on Trotsky’s thought[4]) have important critical implications for how we should understand aspects of his thinking today.

Unfortunately the editors do not draw on their knowledge of this important material to indicate what those implications may be.

So while they promise that “we will want to consider the contemporary relevance of these remarkable writings” (p. 7), the subsequent brief discussion (pp. 19-22, 25-29) focuses mainly on commending his interventions into some of the key events and debates of his time rather than discussing what may be problematic about them. The result is that in terms of encouraging new generations of activists to engage critically with Trotsky (and what other form of engagement is worthwhile?) this volume represents something of a missed opportunity.

Economism and Marxism

In common with many revolutionaries of his generation Trotsky developed his ideas within an intellectual climate heavily influenced by the orthodoxies of the Second International. While Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution marked a break with orthodox stagism[5], and he polemicised in his book on the 1905 revolution against the “pseudo-materialistic geometry” characteristic of speculative philosophies of history, many of his writings (and some of those in the present volume) are suffused with notions that have strong affinities with the forms of “vulgar Marxism” codified by the Second International.

A defining characteristic of this Marxism was its reduction of Marx’s concept of the social relations of production to the economy, taking as given the fetishistic separation between economics and politics characteristic of liberal social theory. In this context Marxism became defined by the ahistorical assertion of the causal primacy of the economic in historical development and the determination of politics. Political consciousness and agency became a function of economic trends, with class radicalism a close correlate of economic inequality and crisis[6].

Marx’s approach, however, had been quite different. In his critique of political economy Marx had concluded that “economic categories are only the theoretical expressions, the abstractions of the social relations of production”[7]. Therefore the social relations of production cannot be reduced to “the economy” or “economic factors”, for to do so would reproduce the fetishism and positivism characteristic of bourgeois thought. Instead the social relations of capitalist production are the totality of social relations through which capital is reproduced. The economic form of these relations was the focus of Marx’s Capital. The political and cultural forms he would leave to others to investigate.

Marx’s conception was fundamentally historical not structural. It was political in the broadest sense rather than economic in the manner of base-superstructure orthodoxy. It followed for Marx that the development of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production (between concrete human practice and the abstractions of capital) is determined not by technology or Hegelian historicism, but by how and to what extent real historical subjects, in all their “real sensuous activity”[8], resist or submit to the social constitution of value.

The implications of Marx’s socialist-humanist project were and remain profound. It means rejecting structuralism in its liberal and pseudo-Marxian variants. It means prioritising the experience of class struggle as the only legitimate basis for conducting socialist politics – not subordinating that experience to alleged laws of history or defining it as immature. It means taking Marx and Engels seriously when they insisted that “our conception of history is above all a guide to study” and that “all history must be studied afresh”. In place of “theoretical bubble-blowing” and “speculative construction”[9] they argued:

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can be made only in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions of their life, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.[10]

 

Historical-materialist analysis is premised in part on the critical appropriation of the empirical in all its unevenness and complexity[11]. Marxist concepts can be used to illuminate the inner nature and dynamics of empirically observed processes to the extent those concepts can be justified by empirical analysis. There is no role for formal deductions from a “speculative construction”.

In terms of analysing political processes this approach highlights the need for grounded abstractions sensitive to the uneven historical and industrial composition of the working class, and to the complex forms of political identity and consciousness this unevenness contributes to creating. Abstractions that over-generalise, that are formulated by reference to metaphysical laws of history, and which serve to assert a reality more fundamental than that which can be empirically tested, are likely to prove useless at best and politically damaging at worst.

Politics of transition

Which brings us back to the “prophet outcast’.

Those who read Trotsky in exile will encounter a mode of analysis that often reverberates with mechanical conceptions reminiscent of Second International economism.

So, rather than assessing the prospects for revolution in terms of the extent to which workers are consciously organising themselves for socialism, Trotsky asserts the imminence of socialist transition by reference to an “economic prerequisite”.

Rather than examining the diverse forms of industrial action and political practice present across national labour movements, and thinking through the complex implications for organisation and strategy, Trotsky routinely ascribes revolutionary intent to mobilisations of workers regardless of their specific context and content.

Instead of analysing the emergence of new forms of employment, growth and state intervention within capitalist economies during the course of the 1930s, and the likely consequences for class composition and political practice, Trotsky flatly declares that all capitalism confronts an “economic blind alley”.

But arguably the weakest aspect of Trotsky’s thought during this period is his conception of reformism. Understanding the sources, dynamics and resilience of reformist ideologies and politics is one of the most important challenges for socialists. An adequate understanding would begin with an examination of the nature of the class relation between capital and labour, the resulting dynamics of intra-class competition, and the extent to which the historical constitution of class practices in particular nations and industries challenges or reinforces reformist politics[12].

However, working with the pre-critical construction that all capitalism is pregnant with socialist transition Trotsky simply asserts that all reformism is an exhausted historical force. It therefore exists as an external and artificial constraint on emergent class radicalism. Through the lens of the “transitional epoch’ the fact of working-class support for reformism needs little explanation, beyond the notion that such support is either a function of economic growth or conscious political deception.

In the absence of growth, explanations for the endurance of reformism then tend to assume a quasi-conspiratorial character, the result of an obsolete leadership manoeuvring to preserve capitalism in the face of (what Trotsky terms) “laws” and “wheels” of history that will ultimately condemn it and them to political obscurity.

The weaknesses evident in some of Trotsky’s writings would matter little today if it were not for the fact that since his death in 1940 a number of Trotskyist organisations have reproduced his flawed formulations as a basis for developing their political analysis and strategy.

For example, claims that the objective conditions for mass socialist radicalisation (or even socialist transformation) are present in many leading capitalist countries, regardless of recent historical experience and the dominant forms of political practice within the working class, have been a recurring theme in Trotskyist discourse since World War II[13]. Such misconceptions have encouraged a number of damaging political habits, notably the formulation of transitional programs and demands that assume a breadth and depth of latent class radicalism for which there is little or no evidence.

Instead of providing a basis for actual struggle by resonating with political consciousness as it actually is, the real role of such programs and demands has often been limited to exposing and denouncing reformists for acting like reformists. However, by attempting to organise around hyper-abstract demands that have no political traction, activists have typically isolated themselves from the more subtle and complex rhythms of the actual class struggle – before leading many to eventually withdraw from socialist politics altogether, disillusioned with the unwillingness of workers to bring their thinking into line with the socialism purportedly demanded by objective conditions[14].

Perhaps Chattopadhyay and Le Blanc have this history in mind when they observe that, “[D]own the years there have been small groups around the world that have sought to convert all of [Trotsky’s ideas] into a dogmatic orthodoxy – although this was alien to Trotsky’s own critical method” (p. 28).

It could be added that to the extent Trotsky’s critical method eschewed “speculative construction” it was not always consistently applied, and the categorical nature of some of his conclusions and predictions hardly encouraged independent critical evaluation by his followers.

Relevant here is the distinctive manner in which Trotsky constructs his arguments. In an insightful evaluation of his work Peter Beilharz highlights the centrality of generative metaphors to Trotsky’s thinking. In particular, he points to Trotsky’s extensive use of evolutionary and biological analogies to assert the inexorable and purgative nature of the revolutionary process, a process in which insurrections are made not by real human subjects asserting their political capacities amid circumstances not of their choosing – but by History. This form of thinking, Beilharz rightly notes, owes a heavy debt to Second International orthodoxy and its characteristic conflation of the natural and social sciences[15].

While Chattopadhyay and Le Blanc do not cite Beilharz they do make reference to concerns about Trotsky’s use of language expressed by Irving Howe and James Burnham (p. 26). Unfortunately, they do so not to invite a legitimate debate about the extent to which Trotsky’s intoxicating prose acts to obscure complex political dynamics, or relegates human agency to the status of mere appearance, but rather to imply that holding such concerns invariably places the critic on the side of reformists and conservatives. Such a polemical manoeuvre does little to stimulate the critical appreciation of Trotsky that the editors surely intend.

After Trotsky

Events since the demise of Lehman Brothers in 2008 have demonstrated, yet again, the highly contingent nature of the relationship between economic crises and class radicalism. The failure of the radical left in most countries to build substantial influence amid deep and persistent crisis conditions continues to exasperate many activists. For some, drawing inspiration from Trotsky, objective conditions for rapid socialist advance are favourable. The crisis today, as it was in the 1930s, remains primarily one of leadership.

However, Trotsky is an unreliable guide to contemporary conditions. This is hardly Trotsky’s fault. For over 70 years it has been open to his followers to critically assess and move beyond the particular interpretation of Marxism that he came to represent. Many chose not to, in part because declaring fidelity with Trotsky was a means of sustaining a commitment to socialist politics under the difficult and unexpected conditions that prevailed after World War II.

Le Blanc has written elsewhere about an important aspect of these unexpected conditions: the erosion and decline of those “radical labour subcultures” within the working class that had previously provided a supportive milieu for socialist ideas and organising[16].

The development of industrial capitalism during the 19th and early 20th centuries saw parts of the working class develop distinctive cultures of self-organisation and self-education within their communities that helped to cultivate a shared class identity and related forms of militancy and radicalism. After 1945, however, a series of political and industrial defeats, compounded by the sustained industrial and cultural recomposition of the working class, acted to erode these cultures.

Industrial militancy persisted, but it tended to become increasingly depoliticised, privatised and subordinated to the electoral imperatives of an ever more technocratic social-democratic politics. Much of the radical left became disconnected from the political and cultural trends that came to characterise much working-class experience from the 1950s onward.

In many leading capitalist countries the result has been the political de-radicalisation and de-skilling of much of the contemporary working class relative to earlier generations. While important periodic mobilisations continue to take place on issues such as climate change, war and inequality, they typically lack the necessary roots in radical labour subcultures that would enable them to offer a sustained and effective political challenge to contemporary neoliberalism.

None of this implies the “end of history”. But it does mean that a precondition for the development of a popular socialist politics in the future is a conscious effort by socialists today to build new forms of the radical subcultures that have been lost. In most countries, and particularly those with a radical labour tradition that lies far in the past, this will require a patient, careful and creative approach to socialist activism and education.

In part this will require abandoning faith in the notion that an “economic prerequisite” or “stagnating productive forces” will suddenly deliver a mass constituency for socialist politics that previously did not exist.

Trotsky’s theories concerning inexorable capitalist decline, the fragility of reformism and the imminence of socialist transition were deeply flawed in the 1930s and completely inappropriate to later conditions. The uncritical use of such theories by some later generations of Trotskyists has contributed to the building of numerous revolutionary organisations characterised by impatience, adventurism, economism and a stubborn inability to develop grounded assessments of the real prospects and opportunities for socialist advance.

In light of this experience, and in the context of the particular political challenges that confront socialists today, Trotsky’s writings need to be read with considerably more critical control than has often been the case in the years since his death. It is a pity that when recommending Trotsky to contemporary activists Chattopadhyay and Le Blanc do not do more to encourage such control.

[Michael Fisher is a socialist living in Melbourne with a particular interest in “political Marxism” (http://politicalmarxism.wordpress.com).]

Notes

[1] Chattopadhyay, K. (2006) The Marxism of Leon Trotsky (Kolkata, India: Progressive Publishers).

[2] Le Blanc, P. (2006) Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience (London: Routledge).

[3] Van der Linden, M. (2009) Western Marxism and the Soviet Union (Chicago: Haymarket).

[4] Ticktin, H. and M. Cox (eds) (1995) The Ideas of Leon Trotsky (London: Porcupine).

[5] Lowy, M. (2006) “The Marxism of Trotsky’s Results and Prospects”, International Viewpoint, http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1118.

[6] For discussions of the nature of the Marxism of the Second International, and how many of its core conceptions were reproduced by later generations of Marxists, see Clarke, S. (1979) “Socialist Humanism and the Critique of Economism”, History Workshop Journal, No.8, pp. 137–56; Colletti, L. (1972) From Rousseau to Lenin (London: New Left Books); and Postone, M. (1993) Time, Labor and Social Domination (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

[7] Marx, K. and F. Engels (1975) “The Poverty of Philosophy”, Collected Works, volume 6 (London: Lawrence and Wishart) p. 165.

[8] Marx, K. and F. Engels (1975) “Theses on Feuerbach”, Collected Works, volume 5 (London: Lawrence and Wishart) p. 85.

[9] Comments by Marx and Engels, quoted in Sayer, D. (1987) The Violence of Abstraction (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 11.

[10] Marx, K and F. Engels (1970), The German Ideology (New York: International Publishers), p. 42.

[11] For a detailed discussion of Marx’s method, and the role of testing in each step of his analysis, see Lebowitz, M. A., (2009) Following Marx: method, critique and crisis (Chicago: Haymarket).

[12] On the historical determinants of class radicalism, drawing on a comparative study of the development of working-class politics in France and Britain, see Gallie, D. (1983) Social Inequality and Class Radicalism in France and Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Gallie argues convincingly that the greater politicisation of inequality in France compared to Britain, and the related development of a politically significant tradition of anti-capitalist radicalism within parts of the French working class, can be explained in large part by the different experience of the two classes during the World Wars and the different responses to trade union militancy and growth adopted by employers and the two states.

[13] For example, in 1974 George Breitman of the US SWP compared the situation then to the situation in 1938 when Trotsky wrote his Transitional Program and concluded “the essential conditions are not different … the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard is even greater and more pregnant than it was in 1938”, in Breitman, G., P. Le Blanc and A. Wald (1996) Trotskyism in the United States: Historical Essays and Reconsiderations (Amherst: Humanity Books) p. 90. A more recent example, which contains strong echoes of Trotsky’s economistic reasoning, is that of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), which argued in December 2012: “Four to five years into a devastating world economic crisis, we can conclude that there are very favourable prospects for the growth of the CWI. With the necessary qualification that consciousness – the broad outlook of the working class – has yet to catch up with the objective situation, it can still be described as pre-revolutionary, especially when taken on a world scale. The productive forces no longer advance but stagnate and decline”, http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/6076.

[14] On the “turn to industry” by the US SWP in the late-1970s, see Sheppard, B. (2012) The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988 Volume 2 (London: Resistance Books) and Camejo, P. (2010) North Star: a memoir (Chicago: Haymarket). The British SWP is not as explicitly indebted to Trotsky and orthodox Trotskyism as some others on the left. However, it also has a long history of repeatedly overestimating the immediate prospects for class radicalisation in Britain on the basis of an economistic theory of reformism and ascribing a degree of class politicisation to struggles and movements not justified by their actual composition and dynamics. Some examples of this are discussed in Higgins, J. (1997) More Years for the Locust: the origins of the SWP (London: IS Group). A useful critical discussion of how the British SWP has deployed “inappropriate generalisations” that frequently exaggerate the degree of politicisation reflected in and generated by industrial action is provided by Gall, G. (2005) “Trade Unions: back from the brink or still on the margins?”, International Socialism Journal, No. 105, available at http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=54&issue=105.

[15] Beilharz, P. (1987) Trotsky, Trotskyism and the Transition to Socialism (New Jersey: Barnes & Noble), pp. 39-42.

[16] Le Blanc, Paul (2010) “Radical Labor Subculture: Key to Past and Future Insurgencies”, WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society, vol. 12, September, pp. 367-385. Others have also registered the importance of subcultural change within the working class. On the decline and contemporary weakness of “infrastructures of dissent” within the working class see Sears, A. (2009) “The End of 20th Century Socialism?”, available at http://revolutionarystrategy.wordpress.com/sears/.

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