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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/.

Comments

"A missed opportunity"

Thanks, Michael, for this very stimulating review. I agree that a critical reappraisal of Trotsky's thought in the 1930s is overdue.

I also agree that there is a great danger in applying formulas from the past without attention to historical context. This problem has arisen especially with regard to the Communist International, my main area of research, and the your points here are well taken.

But I find your discussion of Trotsky's writings in the 1930s too condensed, perhaps inevitably, to engage with the political analysis on which Trotsky's reputation in that period rests.

For me, his authority in discussing those times flows above all from his analysis of Stalinism, his advocacy of united front in resistance to Fascism, his opposition to the counter-revolutionary policies of official Spanish republicanism, his insistence on the need for anti-colonial forces to maintain independence from imperialism, his appeal for workers' independence in resisting the impending world war, and more generally, from the concept that the best way to win tangible gains now ("reforms") is to work for the goal of revolutionary socialism.

We may not agree on these points, but Trotsky's argumentation does not seem to me to be weakened by anything you say in your review.

Trotsky did not see prospects for capitalist economic recovery in the 1930s. Well, he was right about that -- events were moving toward war, not a global boom.

Trotsky predicted that, after the catastrophe of war, we would see revolution, not capitalist prosperity. He was wrong. But even there, what actually happened was foreshadowed in his earlier writings on the long cycles of capitalism.

There are areas where I am not convinced of Trotsky's analysis, and I hope to devote some study to them. The role of the POUM in the Spanish revolution, for example, or some aspects of his treatment of anti-colonial movements. But I do not think these points are necessarily tied in with his view on the prospects of capitalism as a whole.

The process of social integration of the working class in imperialist countries has been going on for a long time, but a case can be made this process was not so evident in the 1930s and really came into its own only after 1945.

So for me, you have opened up an important question here but not provided a satisfactory answer.

However, your argument is double-barrelled. You say, first, that Trotsky was wrong in the 1930s. But you continue that, to the extent he was right, his analysis is a poor guide to the postwar era. You are on firmer grounds with your second point than with your first. But even there, we can be too schematic. In Trotsky's discussions in the 1930s on the USA, for example, he had a lot to say about the struggle for a labour party, support for Black self-determination, the demand that the people vote on war, support for Stalinist presidential candidacy -- issues far removed from that of inevitable capitalist collapse. And he also helped guide his U.S. supporters through two major and successful fusions. His positions on all these points go in the same general direction as your line of argument.

Yes, the conservatism of so many post-Trotskyist small groups today is notorious and distressing. But this characteristic is not limited to Trotskyism. Consider the uproar in the SWP-UK over issues related to feminism. Granted, the SWP-UK has even now not absorbed the lessons of the women's movement in the 1960s. But what about other Marxist currents? How did Moscow Stalinism respond to the rise of feminism? What was the response of Maoism? Of academic Marxism?

There are honourable exceptions on this point, more in the Trotskyist spectrum than elsewhere. But on the whole, the very narrowness ("the ahistorical assertion of the causal primacy of the economic") that you are criticizing can be seen across the spectrum of Marxism as a whole. I do not think this weakness can be explained by an inadequacy of Trotsky's thought.

But the main issue is not who to blame. You are appealing for a Marxism rooted in the class struggle of our time. Here you are absolutely right, and what you say is immensely important.

Kunal Chattopadhyay responds

I have always believed that an author or an editor should have the humility to accept adverse criticism. So I do not want to make a very long response. However, I think the reviewer wants to eat his cake and have it too. Trotsky's assessment of the 1930s cannot be used for later periods -- this is true. Trotskyists who insisted that in the 1950s or later, the world must move as Trotsky had written in the 1930s, were plainly wrong. But we were editing a book of Trotsky's writings.

To say that Trotsky was wrong in the 1930s is not something I would accept. The author would have to establish it much more seriously. Also, in one sentence, I do not accpet the charge of economism, unless we are here being presented with a "Marxism" that says there should be no link between base and superstructure whatsoever.

Economics Overdetermined Politics

I would second comrade Chattopadhyay's assesment of the Mitchell review, particularly on the charge of Trotsky's alledged "mechanical economism" linked to the Marxism of the second international.
As Trotsky was writing in the 1930's, this was an epoch characterised by war, revolution and the collapse of capitalist economies globally. The Depression of global proportions with its mass unemployemnt, rise of working class struggles and organizations, and the consequent rise of fascism was the "overdetermining" factor to which all analysises and programmes were forced to relate. I would urge comrade Mitchell to read Trotsky's writings on the Spanish revolution, the struggle against fascism in Germany, and his literary contributions and criticisms and then try to argue a point about Trotsky's "economism".

Response to John Riddell

Posted on behalf of Michael Fisher
 
John, thank you for your thoughtful engagement with my review and taking the time to comment.

Outside the confines of a book review there is much more that could and should be said about Trotsky’s contribution to the revolutionary politics of his time.

A few brief points…

I think Trotsky was at his best when analysing situations where particular national labour movements confronted genuine and pressing choices between revolution and reaction (such as in Germany and Spain).

He was less good when dealing with countries, such as Britain, with deeper and more resilient liberal-reformist cultures – and where the choices confronting organised labour really did not involve socialist transition in any meaningful sense.

However, in his efforts to sustain the notion of an all-embracing transitional epoch Trotsky typically ascribed revolutionary significance to events that simply did not warrant such a characterisation.

This also led him to ignore, downplay or dismiss the very real economic and political trends in the 1930s that ran counter to his thesis that the productive forces were in final terminal decline.

This, it seems to me, is an elemental flaw in his approach – and one that too many Trotskyists have replicated in the decades since his death.

I agree it would be unfair to criticise Trotsky for failing to anticipate the post-war decline of the radical labour subcultures that Paul Le Blanc has written about. That decline was premised on the outcome of a range of political, industrial and cultural struggles that no one (including Trotsky) could have reasonably predicted. The years after 1945 were the key period – and I think I make that point in the review.

More important was the unwillingness of post-war Trotskyists (among others) to confront or even acknowledge the increasingly obvious decline of those subcultures and adjust their analysis, strategy and tactics accordingly.

A common response was simply to assert the maturity of objective conditions for revolution – and label those political and cultural trends that ran counter to this assertion as necessarily "immature".

In short, a dogmatic economism substituted itself for a politics rooted in the specifics of history.

We must move beyond such substitutions. However, as I argue in my review (and I think we agree on this) I don’t think uncritical readings of Trotsky will help us do that.

Seizing Opportunities

I appreciate Michael Fisher's critical engagement with the book of Trotsky's writings edited by Kunal Chattopadhyay and myself. I am very pleased, also, with the discussion it has generated so far in this exchange. I find myself more or less in agreement with the comments of my friend John Riddell. As a co-editor of the Writings in Exile volume, I want to add a few additional thoughts.

It seems to me that it is important for Trotsky, Lenin, Luxemburg, Fisher, LeBlanc and all others not to be read uncritically. But the most fruitful critical reading needs to be accompanied, at the same time, by a sympathetic reading. This means trying to understand what Trotsky (in this particular case) was saying, to understand his meaning, his context, the structure and logic (and in Trotsky's case, as Fisher himself concedes, the grandeur) of his thought. Once engaged with in this way, it becomes more possible to wrestle with what he offers us, and to consider how it works or fails to work as we seek to grasp our history and the realities around us.

It seems to me, also, that there is more than one legitimate way to edit and introduce a work such as Trotsky's Writings in Exile. One possibility would indeed be to offer a specific critical engagement with the ideas such a volume contains. Another would facilitate such critical engagement by offering the sort of preliminary "sympathetic reading" referred to above. Kunal and I obviously chose the second.

My own preference in avoiding the sort of "critical control" that Fisher urges for the introductory essay also, I guess, involves a feeling that there are quite different critiques that might be worth considering (the hostility of a Peter Beilharz, the kinship of a George Breitman, the critical sympathy of a Marcel van der Linden), and that it is not my place -- in this particular volume -- to impose the "correct" variant of "critical control" on how the reader engages with Trotsky.

The different ways that Fisher and Riddell have engaged with Trotsky's writings seem to me a good illustration of what I had hoped for -- an animated and critical (and in this case a satisfyingly respectful) discussion and debate about the history and the current realities to which Trotsky's writings are relevant, with a "what is to be done" edge about it. My own "critical reading" of Trotsky is still a work in progress, though not nearly so critical as Fisher's, and I have offered various blends of critical-sympathetic engagement -- and will definitely continue to do so -- in writings, talks and discussions before and since the appearance of Trotsky's Writings in Exile.

Having these revolutionary texts by Trotsky more easily at hand, through the new Pluto edition, will make it easier, I hope, for activists to seize the opportunity to better, more critical-mindedly, understand history -- and to change it.

Interaction between Trotsky and his supporters

I agree with Michael Fisher that it is wrong “simply to assert the maturity of objective conditions for revolution – and label those political and cultural trends that ran counter to this assertion as necessarily ‘immature’.” He rightly warns us against “a dogmatic economism substituted itself for a politics rooted in the specifics of history.”

He sees these errors in Trotsky’s writings in the 1930s. I’d like to suggest how this thesis can be tested. It is useful to examine cases where Trotsky had close contact with his supporters in a given country and had an opportunity to become well informed about national conditions.

In the early Comintern period, Trotsky stands out as a good listener, much less schematic than Zinoviev or Bukharin. Trotsky knew how to develop his ideas out of a close knowledge of national reality. In the Fourth Congress proceedings I have published (“Toward the United Front”), this stands out in his handling of the French, U.S., Black, and colonial discussions, and also in his silence on issues where he was less well informed.

During the 1930s, the Trotskyist movement that he probably knew the best was that in the U.S. Many of the U.S. comrades visiting him in Coyoacan were veterans of fierce class battles. Trotsky’s keen interest shines through in an anecdote recounted to me by one of his visitors of the time, who was telling Trotsky of a battle with a company goon:

Visitor: Then I reared back and knocked him colder than Kelly’s icebox!

Trotsky: And just who is this Kelly?

As I suggested in my last comment, I find Trotsky’s suggestions on policy in the U.S., whether right or wrong, to lean in the direction of realism and practicality rather than of schematism. In addition, when he could not convince the U.S. comrades, he deferred to their judgment rather than trying to impose his views.

Something along these lines could perhaps be said of his approach to Germany (the united front against fascism), France (the entry into the SP), and the Soviet Union (the Dewey Commission on the Moscow trials), although here Paul Le Blanc, Kunal, and Michael know the record better than I.

Trotsky was not an empiricist. He tried to combine what he had learned from the early Comintern and the struggle of the Left Opposition with his sense of contemporaneous class struggle reality. He no longer had an International or even a strong leadership team to share the burden. Yet he was called to speak on struggles in every part of the world. Where he was not well informed or misinformed, this could possibly lead to an over-reliance on past models and even a certain schematism.

Was this perhaps the case, as Michael suggests, with regard to Britain? I don’t want to impose tasks on Michael, but I would certainly like to learn more about that experience.

I also have something to say about how these dangers are expressed today, but I’ll set that aside in order to avoid an overlong comment. John Riddell

review of Trotsky book

Reading through Fisher's review, I kept asking myself, "has he READ these works he is criticizing?"
Reading someone accusing Trotsky of a mechanical economism leaves me speechless. Look at his writings on England and France, the extremely specific and concrete characterizations of various bourgeois figures and institutions, of working-class figures and organizations, and, based on that, the extraordinarily careful but bold recommendations for action, for doing the utmost in the sphere of politics to intervene (to exercise agency, as the academics say).
At other times Trotsky is amazingly blunt about the need to wait months or years for conditions to develop, for the class to get over devastating defeats and mistakes, for the party to patiently build itself (including by carefully considered maneuvers).
Where is the economism in that?
All of this would be frustrating enough as evidence that Fisher doesn't know Trotsky's work, or is willfully misrepresenting it.
But such a false portrait of Trotsky's work is literally dangerous in a period when anarchist pablums are instantly, eagerly and unquestionably accepted by millions of (mostly white, mostly middle-class if unemployed) youth. They think, as have all their predecessors, that they have "the answer" to past movement-building failures, that parties must not be built, that no-one but themselves have ever figured out how to avoid the failures in the postcapitalist societies.
In such a context we need the most accurate account of Trotsky's work, not Fisher's misrepresentation.

Response to John Riddell

John, thanks for your further comments.

I agree that Trotsky made many valuable contributions to the work of socialists in a number of countries, offering important insights on a range of strategic and tactical issues.

However, my review was not an attempt to offer a comprehensive critique of all of Trotsky’s writings - although some seem to think that it was.

I focused on a set of foundational conceptions rooted in Trotsky’s theory of the transitional epoch not because they somehow represent most or all of Trotsky’s written output (which they clearly do not), but because it is these conceptions that were often used by some later Trotskyists to theorise post-war capitalism and assess the possibilities for socialist advance.

My argument is that the misapplication of these concepts has not been helpful in the difficult struggle to build an effective socialist movement in the years since his death.

In the 1930s (and before) Trotsky did more than engage with the detail of political events in Germany, Spain and elsewhere. He framed his understanding of micro events within his macro theory of the transitional epoch. This theory was fundamental to Trotsky’s worldview in the 1920s and 1930s – although, to the best of my knowledge, he did not offer a systematic presentation of the theory rooted in empirical analysis.

(I agree that Trotsky, like Marx, was no empiricist. But when it came to generalising about historical trends he had, unlike Marx, little time for the empirical mode of investigation – which is not the same as empiricism.)

Trotsky’s theory involved making a number of interconnected assertions about the nature of global capitalism and class politics in the inter-war period: capitalism was no longer able to develop the productive forces; reformism was exhausted because it would no longer be able to offer significant material reforms; the objective conditions for socialist revolution were ripe; the failure of socialism to emerge outside Russia was primarily due to failures of leadership; the task for socialists was to bring the immature subjectivity of workers into line with the socialism demanded by objective conditions.

This worldview was presented in its clearest form in Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional Programme:

“The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate…The bourgeoisie itself sees no way out…All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet ‘ripened’ for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only ‘ripened’; they have begun to get somewhat rotten.

The strategic task of the next period – a pre-revolutionary period of agitation, propaganda and organization – consists in overcoming the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard.”

A particular critical focus on Trotsky’s Transitional Programme is justified partly because it is a text that has been routinely recommended to generations of later activists by a number of Trotskyist organisations (and parts of the text are reproduced in the book edited by Kunal and Paul).

Also, many of the core conceptions present within The Programme have been reproduced by these same organisations to theorise post-war developments (the notes in my review give some examples).

Perhaps the most flawed aspect of Trotsky’s worldview is the idea that the objective conditions for socialist revolution can be ripe even though the working class may not be aware that they are. This view, it seems to me, is difficult to reconcile with the principle that socialism can only be realised via the conscious self-emancipation of the working class.

It is one thing to argue that conditions of crisis present opportunities for socialist intervention – which they clearly do. It is quite another to assert the real immediate possibility of socialist transformation by reference to such conditions (subject only to a change in leadership).

To maintain that socialist revolution is on the immediate agenda in a country when the large majority of workers routinely vote for a mix of centre-left and right-wing parties is a recipe for self-delusion and political irrelevance (as a number of post-war Trotskyist organisations have proven).

It seems fair (to me at least) to characterise the reasoning in Trotsky’s text as economistic. He renders a radical separation between objective and subjective, between economics and politics, between history and agency – and asserts the necessity and immediate possibility of socialism by reference to the former.

But this mode of reasoning is not unique to Trotsky. As I argue in my review, it has strong affinities with the orthodoxies of the Second International. Nor is it exceptional in the context of Trotsky’s broader body of work.

It was not always expressed in terms of the rise and decline of ‘productive forces’. Sometimes, as in his book on the 1905 revolution, he preferred appeals to objective historical necessity:

“The whole of history is an enormous machine in the service of our ideals. It works with barbarous slowness, with insensitive cruelty.”

Or in his History of the Russian Revolution:

“The serious and critical reader will not want a treacherous impartiality, which offers him a cup of conciliation with a well-settled poison of reactionary hate at the bottom, but a scientific conscientiousness, which for its sympathies and antipathies open and undisguised seeks support in an honest study of the facts, a determination of their real connections, an exposure of the causal laws of their movement. That is the only possible historic objectivism, and moreover it is amply sufficient, for it is verified and attested not by the good intentions of the historian, for which only he himself can vouch, but the natural laws revealed by him of the historic process itself.”

I agree with Paul that the point is to change history. In my view this will be made easier if we abandon forms of analysis that rely on mythical laws of history - or equally metaphysical appeals to 'objective conditions'.

This demands, in part, that we are clear about what is useful in Trotsky's legacy - and what is not.

A SECOND OPINION ON "WRITINGS IN EXILE"

Someone has just shared with me this "second opinion" -- a review which appeared last year in the on-line journal "Counterfire."

http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/articles/book-reviews/15985-trotsky...

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