21/11/2017 by socialistfight
A Reply to Nick Davies
By Gerry Downing
NICK DAVIES HAS placed many historical question marks against Trotskyism in his article “Trotskyist Regroupment” in What Next? No.8. The article represents a national-Trotskyist degeneration because he does what all bourgeois commentators do: he analyses what happened in the USSR as a product what happened within that state alone. I would most strongly contend that it was the fate of the international class struggle that determined the outcome and that it was Trotsky’s orientation to that international struggle, despite the mistakes and hesitations of the mid-1920s, that is the Trotskyist heritage today. Nick’s is an essentially negative and deeply pessimistic contribution which looks on failed historic struggles with petit bourgeois scepticism and concludes that the whole thing was probably not worth the effort. It is written by someone who has become what Trotsky called a “worshipper of the accomplished fact”. He questions everything from this standpoint. These are some of the questions he raises:
1902: Was What Is To Be Done? written only for “work in a semi-Asiatic police state almost 100 years ago?”
It is true that in many of his formulations Lenin makes too many generalisations from the material conditions of early twentieth century Russia. He “bent the stick” (as he admitted himself) on the formulation about bringing consciousness to the working class from without, etc, in order to strike blows against the Economists. But the basic political thrust of the book is correct against those anti-Leninists who seek to denigrate his three main theses against the Economists:
- The revolutionary party must champion all aspects of oppression in all classes and not just fight the trade union struggle – “the model for the revolutionary is the tribune of the people and not the trade union branch secretary”, Lenin says.
- Democratic centralism is the particular organisational and political form that a revolutionary socialist party must adopt.
- The revolutionary party must give active leadership to the class, be the best fighters for all reforms and so gain the ear of the vanguard for revolutionary solutions.
There is a widespread rejection of democratic centralism in favour of “pluralist” parties at the moment. All types of liberal anti-Trotskyists wish to be free of the discipline of the class struggle under the guise of escaping from “sectarianism” and “dogmatism”. Without a revolutionary party based on democratic centralism as its organisational norm it is impossible to educate the membership and the broader vanguard in revolutionary theory. We cannot learn from struggle unless we unite in struggle against the common enemy. Lenin wrote: “We have said that there could not have been social democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without.” It is obvious here that Lenin accepted Kautsky’s understandable conflation of the German Social Democrats with the class. Their sheer size and influence over the class led to a false theory – that the workers could achieve revolutionary consciousness only through the party. So Lenin here is striving to elaborate a theory of a new type of party – one guided by Marxist theory – and he wrongly identified this Marxism with the desire of the masses for revolution. 1905 taught him and the Bolsheviks that the masses could swing sharply to the left but the party had to win its influence over them by what he calls “flexible tactics”. This is what Trotskyists now call the transitional method.
1921: Should we “look again at the Democratic Centralist Opposition” and apologise for Kronstadt?
The suggestion here seems to be that the Democratic Centralist Opposition (DCO) made various correct points on bureaucratic degeneration and then all factions wound up being suppressed by Lenin at the Tenth Congress in 1921. At the same time he and Trotsky suppressed the Kronstadt uprising and this was the origin of Stalinism. The DCO emerged at the time of the Eighth or Ninth Congress in 1919 or 1920 but were almost defunct by the time of Kronstadt, presenting no platform to the Tenth Congress. The later revived DCO of the mid- to late-1920s tended to take an ultra-left line on economic and political questions.
Nick should have developed a position on this himself by now, having read Shlyapnikov (who was in both the DCO and the Workers’ Opposition) and Kollontai and not just cast a large doubt on the historical legitimacy of Bolshevism in this manner. He should say what was correct and what was incorrect in the actions of Lenin, defend what is essential before condemning the errors. I will attempt that now.
It is not true that “Trotskyists end up defending it [the crushing of the Kronstadt revolt] by default, because Trotsky supported it”. The Oppositions were demanding privileges for the industrial working class that would have led to anarchy and the destruction of the Soviet state. The Oppositions correctly pointed to many manifestations of bureaucratisation and corruption within the state bureaucracy and Party and even gave a clear analysis of their sociological origins and secondary roots. It was wrong of both Lenin and Trotsky at the time not to take more heed of this aspect of the Oppositions’ platforms. Both Rakovsky and Trotsky attacked the consolidating bureaucracy a few years later by borrowing extensively from works like Kollontai’s pamphlet The Workers’ Opposition.
However, Lenin and Trotsky (later) did understand the root cause of the discontent. Lenin’s dictum at the Tenth Congress that “Communism is Soviet rule plus electrification of the entire country”, and the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) re-establishing market mechanisms in light industry and agriculture, showed that he understood that War Communism had become counterproductive. The incorrect policy of Trotsky and Bukharin on the militarisation of the trade unions also showed in its own way that the NEP came late. If a lesson is to be learned from Trotsky’s error here it is that he should have fought far harder for his own proposals for allowing the development of limited market mechanisms in light industry and agriculture a year earlier.
But surely we must reject the syndicalism of Kollontai in her pamphlet: “Who is right – the leaders or the working masses endowed with the healthy class instinct?” This attitude was indeed a recipe for anarchy, amounting to special pleading for the right to privileges of the industrial working class over all other sectors in conditions of widespread hunger and destitution. By 1921 the economy was reduced to 20% of its 1913 level. From whom should the surplus have been taken at a time when there was not any really privileged layer? In these circumstances, when the Whites would certainly have taken advantage of widespread revolts, there was no option but to crush the Kronstadt uprising. Many of the Workers’ Opposition leaders recognised at that point that their popularity was based on a sectionalism that resulted in the tragedy of Kronstadt and they renounced their views.
Yes it was wrong to ban factions at the Tenth Congress. Yes it did assist Stalin crush all opposition at a later date. But this factor is a really minor one in the causes of the rise of the bureaucracy, which lay in the first place in the fate of the international class struggle. These defeats left Soviet industry and agriculture in a condition of appalling technical backwardness and with no obvious way out. Nick is silent on this question here (apart from mentioning the threat of invasion by the Whites via Kronstadt) but far more significantly in relation to the next issue that he attacks Trotskyism on, the events of 1928 and the immediately succeeding years.
1928: Should Trotsky have blocked with Bukharin against Stalin at the time?
Nick Davies says: “I think the LO [Left Opposition] was mistaken in believing, as it did, that Bukharin and the Right Opposition was the main enemy.” This proposition strikes at the heart of Trotskyism. It is a real national isolationist outlook based on a foolish scenario – a peaceful victory for the Right in the midst of a grain strike by the kulaks (rich peasants).
Trotsky’s economic policy of the 1920s formed part of the entire Marxist world outlook which has become known today as Trotskyism. The LO never considered the idea of forced collectivisation because revolutionaries do not seek to develop revolutions through mass oppression of workers and peasants. Whilst the introduction of even a bureaucratically deformed plan proved the superiority of socialist planning, it also marked the definite turning away from international revolution and the consolidation of the bureaucracy and rule by terror.
So the propaganda of the Trotskyists from now on was based on how much better planning would be if it were based on workers’ democracy and what damage the regime of terror was doing to the consciousness of the world proletariat. Whatever Stalin gained in planned industrialisation was paid for by the terrible dislocation of agriculture and later by developing piecework and a privileged layer of industrial workers – the Stakahavonites. Up to two million kulaks were murdered by the regime. The effect of the forced collectivisation was the second biggest famine in history. The award for the biggest must go to the similar ultra-left lunatic adventure of Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward’ – into the mass famine graves for untold millions of Chinese peasants. In the Ukraine and Crimea as many as ten million may have starved to death in 1932.
Trotsky did not oppose the nationalist and economically autarkic theory of socialism in a single country, introduced by Stalin in 1924, until 1926. Illness and the ferocious assault on the theory of Permanent Revolution have been cited in his defence. The main initial opponents of Stalin on this matter were Kamenev and Zinoviev. But Trotsky’s economic policy was permeated entirely by his internationalism and he vigorously combated socialism in a single country after 1926. (He compromised over the Permanent Revolution in the Platform of the Joint Opposition in 1927, on the reasonable basis that he could not bloc at all without some compromise.)
Trotsky’s closest collaborator in the LO on economic matters, Preobrazhensky, did not properly understand this question and this was reflected in his major work The New Economics. His theory of “primitive socialist accumulation” relied too much on extracting surpluses from the peasantry and did not sufficiently incorporate the world market into its plan. It therefore tended towards autarky and, as Trotsky pointed out, unwittingly provided support for the theory of socialism in a single country. It is here we must look for the causes of the collapse of a large section of the LO after Stalin’s left turn, not in any failure to conciliate the Right.
It really is with the benefit of the most conservative hindsight that Nick can come to the conclusion that no other road could have opened up. Had Trotsky politically collapsed by blocking with Bukharin, who would then have championed the fight for revolutionary theory and practice? How would we have been able to learn the lessons of the defeat of the British general strike of 1926 or the Chinese revolution of 1927?
Bukharin was almost inseparable from Stalin up to 1928 and he supplied him with all the rightist ideology to defeat the Left Opposition. And this ideology contributed greatly to these international defeats. The Right was totally compromised politically in the ranks of the party – even if some middle bureaucrats supported it – and Stalin had the easiest of tasks in defeating it once the Left Opposition was crushed. So to talk, or dream, of the possibility of a Left-Right block against the Centre is rubbish. And in conditions of acute crisis a peaceful outcome was not an option. Had the kulaks and Nepmen triumphed, the result would have been the restoration of capitalism, and Bukharin would have been quickly swept aside by the reaction.
A large dose of Stalinophobia seems to be contained in Nick Davies’ implied proposition that a democratic capitalism was preferable to a despotic Stalinism. The point is that this was not on offer historically in 1928 just as it is proving a fool’s illusion after 1989-91. In fact the response of Rakovsky, on behalf of the Left Opposition and with Trotsky’s approval, was to propose a bloc with Stalin against Bukharin! In the “Declaration of August 1929” Rakovsky acknowledged the left turn and the value of planned industrialisation, while maintaining his absolute opposition to the theory socialism in a single country and its consequences.
1938: Was the Fourth International founded on the basis of a “monumental political gamble which failed to come off”?
This question fails to appreciate the purpose of a revolutionary programme and perspective. The Fourth International’s programme was a fighting programme. Its purpose was to analyse the revolutionary potential contained in the contradictions between the working class internationally and the imperialist powers and the role of the USSR in that and to prepare the cadres of the Fourth International to lead in the correctly predicted coming revolutionary opportunities brought about by the war. It was not a gamble like one would make on the roll of the dice. The outcome of the conflict depended on the struggle of living forces.
How revolutionaries fought, and what theory and practice guided them, might determine the outcome of the struggle if various circumstances were favourable. One cannot say in advance what opportunities will present themselves in the midst of such monumental upheavals.
1953/1998: Should the Fourth International have been wound up before 1953 and should it now be “given a decent burial”?
It is surely enough to point out to Nick that had those who called themselves Trotskyists dissolved the FI by 1953 neither he nor I would be here to write these articles. However, we need these debates and discussions on the fundamentals of Trotskyism and revolutionary Marxism if the problems of the revolutionary leadership of the working class are to be addressed at all.
Nick confuses two separate if closely related, tasks. Yes, we must turn to the labour movement. Yes, we must seek to recruit from there. No, we cannot “regroup” with militant workers or the left of the SLP. We must win them to Trotskyism. The ideas behind revolutionary regroupment are to develop and consolidate an international Trotskyist leadership which is the only real way to develop the theory necessary for the day-to-day job of agitation and propaganda in the ranks of the working class.
It follows that revolutionary regroupment is directed at other forces internationally who identify with Trotskyism. Only by a serious struggle can we hope to build such an international leadership. Our partners in this endeavour must share a common understanding of at least some basic fundamentals of Trotskyism.
The purpose of the struggle does have as its long-term aim the rebuilding of the Fourth International, or the founding of a Fifth if that proves impossible. But the present stage must take account of the dislocation, of the enormous theoretical confusion, of the long period of degeneration and also, very importantly, of our own inadequacies and need to learn from this struggle. So the proposal would be joint engagement, joint international co-operation and an annual international conference on revolutionary regroupment.
Nick Davies provides a confusing answer to that question of questions: To whom should we turn? – “It therefore follows that the national and international regroupment we should be aiming for should not be solely ’Trotskyist’, either by an amalgam of existing groups or by one eating up the rest, nor should Trotskyists even, necessarily, be a majority.”
Who should this majority be then? Not “Castro, Maurice Bishop and the ANC” or any of the notorious opportunist accommodators like Mandel. No, according to Nick we must orientate to “other forces” who “exist more as a long-term project rather than as actuality”. So instead of fighting out the real political differences with the actually existing forces that claim to be Trotskyist, he ends up by proposing we should orientate to figments of his imagination!
In what must surely amount to the worst passage of the article Nick arrogantly dismisses those forces which attempt to apply the programme of Trotskyism to current developments in world politics: “The crossing and recrossing, by the military sections of imaginary, recreated Fourth Internationals, of the jungle and savannah of Zaire, the towns and valleys of Bosnia, and the arid highlands of Iraqi Kurdistan shows in tragicomically sharp relief the chasm between pretension and reality.”
What is the point in orientating to international political developments at all, then, by attempting to say what Trotskyists would have done in the circumstances if they had the forces? Could he not have thrown in Dien-Bien-Phu and the Mekong Delta while he was at it, or even the battlefields Stalingrad and the plains of Asturias? The fact that the Leninist Trotskyist Tendency, the international current to which both he and I belong, failed to produce any positional statement on Zaire and on our attitude to Kabila was very backward of us.
Elsewhere in Nick’s article the question of tactics is raised to that of strategy. Militant had a strategy, according to Nick, whereas most other Trotskyists post-war did not. But what distinguished Militant’s “strategy” from the tactics of the Workers International League, Workers Power, Socialist Outlook etc. was that it capitulated to reformism, crucially on the question of the state.
What are we to make of the hegemonic project stuff? Nick’s “strategy” concedes too much to reformism beneath a cloud of pseudo-Gramscite gobbledegook. He bases this on the exceptionalist idea that Trotsky did not understand the western working class.
How can we “develop a hegemonic project based on the power of the working class to run society now?” Hegemony is essentially a strategy by which a ruling group constructs alliances to maintain themselves. In a certain sense, it was appropriate in the USSR in the early 1920s. The working class in power had and will have to maintain these alliances as socialism is constructed. To talk now of “the hegemonic project based on the power of the working class to run society”, allied with the admiration for Militant’s “strategy” is to imply replacing the theory of a working class taking power by revolutionary upheaval by some version of an “enabling bill” or the development of a left Labour Government “growing over” into socialism.
Mike Banda in 1982
As with “27 Reasons”, the document produced by Mike Banda after the implosion of the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1985, the ability to question and reject past errors in Nick’s article seems to be overshadowed by the rejection of all revolutionary positions.
Trotskyist Regroupment: The Ununiteable in Pursuit of the Undesirable
Nick Davies, What Next? No.8 2007
“… we must ensure that we do not take the revolution off the agenda again, and that we patiently, flexibly and at the same time aggressively struggle for the political regeneration of the Fourth International – to create a world vanguard party that can lead the proletariat to socialist revolution, liberating the whole of humanity” (“Opportunists Split from ITC”, Revolutionary Internationalist, No.11, 1992 ).
“… a stage peopled by supposedly innocent children who stride about on stilts and in the most varied costumes, pronouncing speeches they have learned by heart and only half understood, but which they regard with fanatical reverence” (Milan Kundera, The Joke).
“Leninism means being free of the conservative glance backwards, free of precedents, formal references and quotations…. Lenin should not be cut up with scissors for suitable quotations for every occasion, formula never took precedence over reality for him, but was always a means to master reality” (Trotsky, The New Course).
THIS PIECE is intended as a contribution to the welcome discussion on revolutionary regroupment which has featured in recent issues of What Next? In particular it is a response to Gerry Downing’s article Revolutionary Regroupment”, in issue No.4 of the journal, which states that “while we have a programme for an orientation to all who call themselves Trotskyists and other centrists, the prime task of today is left Trotskyist regroupment” (my emphasis).
I must disagree with the first part of this sentence, and question very strongly the second part. An initial problem is that Gerry does not say how the categories he mentions are to be defined. What is “left Trotskyism”, and what, in this context, is “centrism” other than a pejorative, referring to one’s opponents? For example, is the Spartacist current “left” (or ultra-left?) because of its attitude towards Labourism, or “right”, because of its positions on Ireland and Palestine?
Frankly (and I am anxious not to violate the non-sectarian spirit of this journal) a large number, and possibly a majority, of those groups which present themselves as “Trotskyist” (whichever category Gerry chooses to put them into) are a pathetic, destructive joke – their press virtually unreadable, their grasp on political reality shaky. The crossing and recrossing, by the military sections of imaginary, regenerated Fourth Internationals, of the jungle and savannah of Zaire, the towns and valleys of Bosnia, and the arid highlands of Iraqi Kurdistan shows in tragicomically sharp relief the chasm between pretension and actuality. They try to hide their failure to develop revolutionary Marxism beyond 1940 behind bible-thumping and mass-party ceremonial – giving fancy, baroque names to minuscule international tendencies. The bombastic arrogance of their “Central Committee statements” is at odds with their complete political irrelevance. I know from experience that it is far easier to slide into the comfortable subculture of sectariana, where the manoeuvre is everything and the goal nothing, than it is to climb out of it.
Anyway, what does the “Trotskyism” of many of these groups amount to? A formal, dogmatised adherence to the positions of the Bolshevik Party from 1917-23 and the Left Opposition (LO) and its descendants from 1923-40, a tendentious and selective reading of the history of their own immediate ancestors, a political practice reminiscent of Third Period Stalinism with a strong admixture of opportunism, and an authoritarian, at times even thuggish, internal regime.
I strongly suspect that Gerry Downing does not have a high opinion of many of these “Trotskyists” either, but many of them are the “left Trotskyists” which he believes should be the prime focus of any regroupment project; otherwise, they are within the ambit of “all those who call themselves Trotskyist” to which he also wishes to orient himself. Life is too short to spend trying to save the “Trotskyist” souls of these myriad, disparate groupuscules.
However, I do not propose abandonment of the regroupment perspective, merely the abandonment of any notion of regroupment between and exclusive to groups claiming to be Trotskyist. If such a thing were possible, and I think it is not, it would be at best a mini-international of cadres, representing only itself. (This objection was made by, among others, Isaac Deutscher, to the founding of the Fourth International (FI). There was a strong element of truth in this charge, mitigated by the then political situation: oncoming world war and the need to form a pole of attraction away from Stalinism and Social Democracy as a matter of extreme urgency. Also we should not overlook the relative political homogeneity of Trotskyism at that time.) It therefore follows that the national and international regroupment we should be aiming for should not be solely “Trotskyist”, either by an amalgam of existing groups or by one eating up the rest, nor should Trotskyists even, necessarily, be a majority.
I realise that there have been earlier versions of this project that have involved wholesale adaptation to Castro, Maurice Bishop and the ANC – or, in its latest version the “recomposition” of the labour movement, which involves blurring the differences between reformism and revolutionary politics and, in fact, saying to the Stalinists that now that the Soviet Union has collapsed under the weight of its own rottenness, we should let bygones be bygones. (Here I have to disagree with Dave Osler in What Next? No.6.)
We must aim to build a revolutionary current in the labour movement. Criticisms of the “Trotskyists in a minority” project have some validity only on the assumption that post-Trotsky Trotskyism is revolutionary politics, and vice versa. However, in rejecting a regroupment perspective of splits and fusions solely among ostensibly Trotskyist organisations in favour of a regroupment between revolutionaries (including Trotskyists) with an orientation to the labour movement and the class conscious working class vanguard, we would be attempting a synthesis which redefines revolutionary politics and, in so doing, to some extent, defines “Trotskyism” as it has been understood for the past fifty years out of existence.
Obviously, with its theoretical heritage – the transitional method, the united front, the critique of the labour bureaucracy – Trotskyism in its most healthy, most creative and least sectarian form is likely to dominate politically the revolutionary current, and at the moment, the “other forces” exist more as a long-term perspective rather than as actuality. Nevertheless, such long-term perspectives should determine our orientation, and events in East Asia and in Western Europe show the potential for a rebuilding of working class militancy and, in the case of the protests at Renault Vilvoorde, the potential for international workers’ unity. In Britain, militants disgusted by New Labour’s reactionary, anti-working class policies or by the tin-pot Stalinism of Scargill’s SLP will be looking for alternatives. There is the possibility, in the next few years, of a top-to-bottom split in the Labour Party, to the left, or, possibly, to the right. The repercussions of this may provide opportunities for revolutionaries. I realise that these are only possibilities at present, but I would rather put my money on them to produce a revolutionary current in the labour movement that on the Byzantine intrigues of “Trotskyist” sects any day of the week.
The above has implications for the regroupment project in so far as it is based on a reconstruction of the Fourth International. Basically, I think we should consider whether it is time we gave the FI a decent burial. Already a rump in comparison with the original project (the “Bloc of Four” etc), it was proclaimed, but never built, on the basis of a monumental political gamble which failed to come off. Some of the reasons for the FI’s failure to become politically viable are not, I imagine, controversial: smallness, isolation, the death of many of its most talented cadres at the hands of the Stalinists and fascists, and, not least, the fact that Trotsky’s political perspectives for World War Two and after were not realised.
But I think we have been perhaps too generous in our assessment of the political shape of the pre- and post-war FI and to its disastrous leadership by the crudely pragmatic, parochial US Socialist Workers Party. By rights, and with the benefit of hindsight, the FI should possibly have been wound up before it split in 1953, on the grounds that events had overtaken the basis for its existence. Its cadres could have engaged in the preparatory programmatic work necessary to regroup and politically re-arm revolutionary Marxists in a period of economic boom, recognising the post-war reality and the crucial role in this reality (in Western Europe) of the new historic bloc of finance capital, the state, social democracy and the labour bureaucracy. They could have elaborated, and re-elaborated, in the light of the post-war experience, the revolutionary programme with regard to women’s liberation, the anti-colonial struggles and the environment.
However, on the whole, these generals without an army did none of these things, but locked themselves in a crisis-mongering, catastrophist time-warp, telling the working class (often in the quaintly dated phraseology of the 1930s and ’40s), on first a manual and then an electric typewriter, then on an Amstrad, then on Word Perfect and now in Cyberspace, that “mankind’s productive forces stagnate [and] … new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth”. At the same time they adapted to Stalinism, nationalism, social-democracy, guerillaism, and “movementism”, adopting, eclectically, the best and the worst of environmentalism, feminism, or lesbian and gay liberation, or, in the case of Healy and Grant, and others, ignoring them altogether. I am not adopting a “bad person” view of history here. No one, to my knowledge, has ever set out with the intention of building a sect. Leaving aside the bizarre and sinister gangsterism of Healy and his like, many militants, with varying degrees of sophistication and pragmatism, were trying to make the best sense they could of the post-war reality, in relative isolation from the workers’ movement and armed with the flawed catastrophism inherited from the Fourth International which had seen the Second World War as a re-run of the First.
It has been argued that we should not write off the fragments of the FI, on the basis that they have not crossed into the camp of counter-revolution. I think this is mechanical and it misses the point. The Second and Third Internationals attained, in many countries, the leadership of the working class. Their organisations and apparatus were large, including millions of workers, students and intellectuals. Those of the Fourth International never achieved that position, with the exception of the Vietnamese (who were massacred) and the Ceylonese (of whom possibly most of the leadership were not and did not claim to be Trotskyist). In terms of the big picture, whether or not they had crossed class lines was, in fact, irrelevant. The crisis of post-Trotsky Trotskyism has taken a different form from that of social democracy and Stalinism. Taken as a whole, it has not passed into the same class camp as the other two, and rather than a 1914 or a 1933, there has been a comparatively slow process of diffusion and fragmentation, so that by the time of the Polish events of 1980-81 you could find a Trotskyist group calling for “Solidarity to Power”, or another calling for it to be suppressed by the Stalinist police state.
The Yugoslav wars of 1991-94, and the failure by most Trotskyists to support the defence of multi-ethnic Bosnia-Hercegovina against nationalist terror, surely shows the long-running crisis of post-Trotsky Trotskyism at its very apotheosis. The multiplicity of different positions, most of them wrong, and the methodology, if you can call it that, employed (reliance on nationalist propaganda of Serbs or Croats, the rehashing of Foreign Office communiqu‚s, or the parroting of decades-old quotations, all dressed up as “Marxism”) constitute as frank an admission of political incompetence and bankruptcy as it is possible to get. The United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) actually emerges with some credit, despite the fact that its pro-Bosnia positions were based somewhat on liberalism and coupled with support for Croatia, in that it organised, with help from other groups, practical aid for the multi-ethnic workers’ centres of Bosnia. The nutritional value of flour, pasta and cooking oil is, I think, superior to that of the bad advice given to the Bosnians in the aggregated articles, documents and theses of most of the world’s Trotskyists.
The purpose of this example, and indeed this whole article, is not to write off as useless all those groups and individuals who regard themselves as Trotskyist. I have been for nearly twenty years, and still am, part of that milieu myself. I am arguing that the process of diffusion and fragmentation over the past half-century means that is now impossible to speak of “Trotskyism” as a coherent and recognisable body of theory and practice. Those standing in that tradition may be serious and dedicated militants, trying to use and develop the theoretical arsenal of revolutionary Marxism to make sense of the world and try to change it; on the other hand they may be doctrinaire, sectarian bible-thumpers, to whom their own separateness is everything, to whom the very notion of regroupment is a manoeuvre to grab half a dozen recruits. What separates them is vastly more important than any shared origin in the break-up of the Fourth International.
The crisis of post-Trotsky Trotskyism meant that attempts to develop Marxist theory and understanding of the world were generally left to others. For example: history, culture and the “British” question – New Left Review; the USSR – those around Critique, and various Bukharinites; both “green” politics, and women’s liberation – a host of non-Trotskyist activists and academics. You don’t have to agree with the method of analysis or the conclusions of these people to admit that what they have produced is usually more stimulating and more profound than anything in the majority of the Trotskyist publications. Of course there are exceptions, and I am not suggesting that post-Trotsky Trotskyists are less brainy, just less curious, possibly. Small wonder, however, if for them all the theory has already been written and all that’s needed is for history to give them the nod to realise their destiny in resolving the crisis of leadership.
What of the “left Trotskyism” to which Gerry Downing attaches so much importance, but which he never defines exactly? It is part of the problem which it has set out to solve (and in saying this I recognise that I come from this tendency myself). Its answer to opportunism and liquidationism was the reassertion of “consistent” or “orthodox” Trotskyism, as some termed it: the Transitional Programme and its method, political revolution in the USSR, Eastern Europe and China, Permanent Revolution, and, from the standpoint of the canon of Trotsky, pointing out, generally correctly, where the larger currents led by Mandel, Healy and Lambert had been in error.
In the case of the Workers Socialist League (WSL), arguably the most serious and best-known of these groups there were attempts to develop and test out theory and practice in its base in Cowley. The contradiction was that at the same time as they criticised the USFI and the other major currents as having both been unable to come to terms with the non-fulfilment of Trotsky’s pre-war perspectives, they themselves resorted to doctrinaire orthodoxy. The Trotskyist International Liaison Committee (TILC), the international tendency set up by the WSL, announced its presence with a declaration of the continuing validity of a then 40-year-old action programme (“The Transitional Programme – Valid Today”). Criticisms of Mandel and others might have been correct, in purely formal terms, but the defence of positions, not combined with the development of programme and method, meant that the political stultification and eventual split and collapse of its successor, the International Trotskyist Committee (ITC), was inevitable.
Primarily, the TILC and ITC reasserted the Transitional Programme, at the expense of developing and updating it, and at the expense of a critical assessment. One does not have to accept Gramsci’s criticism that Trotsky failed to make complete break from the mechanical Marxism of the Second International (and I don’t) to see that there are problems with, for example: “… the approaching wave will raise it [the FI] on its crest.” At best, this is open to misinterpretation, or was a case of Trotsky the journalist getting the better of Trotsky the dialectician; at worst, I think it is just wrong. Either way, an over-literal interpretation of formulations of this kind have put us in the mess we’re in.
Workers Power, another group in the “left Trotskyist” camp, also appears to be mired in a sterile orthodoxy. It responds to debate on revolutionary regroupment with all the hauteur one is entitled to expect from the self-designated heirs of Lenin and Trotsky. Only a few dozen strong, it nevertheless refers to its competitors as “tiny sects”, and uses “centrist” as a term of exclusion and abuse, repeating like a mantra a 1930s formulation by Trotsky on centrism, apparently indifferent to the fact that this concerned large organisations, proletarian in composition, vacillating between social democracy and the Comintern (and Trotsky), not tiny Trotskyist-derived groups of a few dozen. As political debate, or an attempt to solve the problems of the revolutionary left, it is not even second rate.
The collapse of Stalinism has brought the “Trotskyist” chickens home to roost. Reliance on 50-year-old positions in Revolution Betrayed and In Defence of Marxism as if they were written last week, was no basis for a comprehensive analysis of the post-Stalin USSR, let alone Eastern Europe (and how similar were, say, Hungary and Albania?), China, Vietnam and Cuba. It is not surprising that positions as divergent as those of the Lambertists and the Spartacists were claimed to be derived from Trotsky’s own positions. I am sure that you can use these writings to argue for both these positions. Revolution Betrayed was an attempt to analyse the contradictory nature of the USSR, at the height of Stalin’s terror, during the drive to industrialisation and when the Soviet bureaucracy was a new and still unstable phenomenon. It was written from exile, using that information which was available. Its analysis is provisional, and it says so. You could probably base an ultra-Soviet defencist position on some of it, such as the chapter “What Has Been Achieved?” Elsewhere, “Whither the Soviet Union?” takes a pessimistic, or realistic, look at bureaucratisation and its inevitably restorationist dynamic. Some of the analysis is incisive and brilliant, but ten years after publication it was already dated, even more so twenty, and thirty years later. Poor old Trotsky. If he’d known how throughout the reigns of Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev, his epigones would be still scanning his provisional analyses, decades later, for the “correct position”, I wonder if he’d have concentrated full-time on his rabbits and cacti.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the reaction among the “lefts” to the collapse of the USSR has been characterised by conservatism and formalism, such as the insistence that capitalism can only be restored by civil war: no civil war ergo no capitalist restoration, or by the inventing of bogus categories such as “moribund workers’ state” (which rather begs the question as to what condition the workers’ state in the USSR was in before 1991!).
The essence of the problem, therefore, is politics based primarily on the defence of positions which are decades old. Those positions were elaborated in the heat of struggle. They are provisional, incomplete, and of their time and place. “Consistent Trotskyism” consists of the steadfast defence of these positions, and that’s it. Politics then consists of filling in the gaps in thought, word and deed. Of course, it’s a highly speculative exercise. With breathtaking cynicism (it must run in the family) Herbert Morrison once defined socialism as what Labour governments did. “Consistent Trotskyists” define “consistent Trotskyism” as being what “consistent Trotskyists” do. (I sometimes wonder how those “consistent Trotskyists” who gave Mawhinney’s suit the Jackson Pollock look can explain themselves. Possibly they have discarded the Transitional Programme for Beadle’s About as a source of political inspiration.)
Theologians have been engaged in biblical exegesis for centuries, and it is a truism to say that whether they are Jesuits or Wee Frees, they can study the Old and New Testaments and get what they want out of them. That must not be the method of revolutionary Marxism. The theoretical and practical achievements of Marx and Engels were not discarded immediately that they ceased to be practically relevant (otherwise, the Communist Manifesto would have been “out of date’” by 1851), but neither were they preserved in amber, as the Second International and the Mensheviks sought to do, in opposition to Lenin and Trotsky.
The same must apply to Trotsky, and Trotskyism, by which I mean the form taken by revolutionary Marxism in the context of the degeneration of the Comintern. (Trotsky often referred to “so-called Trotskyism”, preferring not to regard it as a political category in its own right). The theory of Permanent Revolution, and its concept of combined and unequal development, the analysis of the rise of the Soviet bureaucracy, the Transitional Method, and the United Front are all part of the theoretical arsenal of revolutionary Marxism. In the hands of mutually anathematising sects they are as the remains of classical cities used by barbarians to build sheep pens. To use one of Trotsky’s phrases, we must learn to think. As well as working for regroupment on the lines argued for above, we must critically reassess aspects of revolutionary Marxism, and I have made a non-exhaustive list below. Some are not burning issues for the class, now, but are subjects for study and discussion.
• Strategy: I think Trotskyism has always been weak on this. Gramsci criticised Trotsky, in the 1930s, as a politician of the frontal assault in a period of defeats. Much of Gramsci’s criticism of Trotsky is incorrect and ill-informed, because he was working from inaccurate information, or in factional heat. Even if one doesn’t agree with this particular statement, some of Trotsky’s greatest theoretical and practical achievements were concerned with the struggle for power: either the workers seizing power, or maintaining it, or the fascists being prevented from seizing it. I think Trotsky underestimated the hold of parliamentary democracy in Western European political culture, and with regard to World War Two, underestimated the extent to which the ruling classes of the Allies were able to mobilise the working class behind them in a war for “democracy”: in other words, he saw the Second World War as being a re-run of the First. (As Trotsky died when the war was less than a year old, this criticism has to be a qualified one. To his successors we must be less forgiving.) Trotskyism was never able to come to terms with the long boom and conditions of relative stability, and was forced to seek refuge in, variously, “movementism” (USFI), catastrophism (Healyism), social democratic routinism (Lambertism) or an odd combination of these last two (Militant). We need to look at how we can develop a hegemonic (or, perhaps more accurately, a counter-hegemonic) project based on the power, and the need, of the working class to run society. The reduction of this question to purely one of leadership is a symptom of the voluntarism which is a weakness of Trotskyism. (Militant’s Labour Party project was, at least, a sign of a realisation of the need for some sort of a strategy, whatever else was wrong with it.)
• An analysis of the political economy of the USSR, post 1940, and of the Comecon states: so far as I can see, the most serious work has been done by Critique, or by other, non-Trotskyist, academics.
• What Is To Be Done?: revolutionary Marxists should stop venerating or making excuses for this text, written for work in an semi-Asiatic police state almost 100 years ago. Its author was obliged to rethink his ideas on the party by 1905, let alone by 1917. Progress Publishers produced it as part of the Lenin cult. Its main function now is to legitimise the behaviour of small-time autocrats and the imposition of a distorted, “security”-obsessed, over-centralised version of democratic centralism. That is not to say that is its only function, or that it has no value today. However, it should by understood firmly in its context.
• Trotskyists have never been critical enough of the Bolsheviks in power prior to the foundation of the Left Opposition. I think this reflects the fact that Trotsky himself was a party loyalist par excellence (possibly trying to make up for his own past) and even after 1923 conducted his struggle strictly within the confines of the party. A frank and critical reappraisal is required of Trotsky’s attitude towards the trade unions and the militarisation of labour. Likewise the Bolsheviks’ attitude towards other workers’ parties: the Mensheviks, and particularly the Left Mensheviks, as well as the Left Communists etc, which was too unremittingly harsh, whatever those parties’ mistakes (I am distinguishing them from the Social Revolutionaries who took up arms against the Soviet state).
We should say that the suppression of the Kronstadt mutiny was wrong, whether or not we agree with the politics of the mutineers. The Anarchists and Victor Serge have been right in raising this. Trotskyists have ended up defending it by default, because Trotsky supported it. They have accepted too easily the official Soviet version, which casts the mutineers either as conscious counter-revolutionaries or as easily manipulated peasant lads. The ban on factions at the Tenth Congress was wrong, and prepared the road for the repression of the Left Opposition. This ban has been justified as preventing a split in the party, but in fact it speeded up the party’s degeneration into an administrative apparatus. In many ways it was a logical corollary of the banning of other parties: a one-party state is in effect a no-party state. (We should look again at the arguments of the Democratic Centralist opposition on party democracy.)
The Bolsheviks were forced to take extraordinary and harsh measures because of the threat to the new state from the Whites and the imperialists, and the hostility or non-cooperation from other Soviet parties, as well as the state of the economy. In this situation, with the revolution isolated, the revolutionary ideal, of the rule of contending but comradely workers’ parties through the Soviets, was always going to be difficult to realise. However, I think that once the civil war was won and the Allies had backed off, the extraordinary measures had to a large extent created their own logic. The Bolsheviks found it difficult to distinguish between comradely criticism or justified complaints from otherwise loyal workers, on the one hand, and hostility and sabotage on the other. They began to make a virtue out of necessity, resulting in the cult of the vanguard party, aped by Stalinists and Trotskyists alike elsewhere.
• We should look critically at some aspects of the struggle of the Left Opposition. In particular, the LO was mistaken in believing, as it did, that Bukharin and the Right Opposition was the main enemy. Whatever the differences with the Bukharinites on the economy (and Moshe Lewin makes an interesting case that vis-à-vis the Stalin bloc, there was an effective convergence of the programmes of the Left and Right Oppositions) this should not have prevented a bloc on the question of party democracy. Had the Right Opposition won out, would the effect on the working class, or on the whole country resembled in its scale the purges, forced collectivisation, the betrayal of Germany and Spain? No; Stalin was the main enemy. I think this is important because the misestimation of Stalin and Bukharin was the reason why so many of the Left Opposition, including some of the most talented of its leadership capitulated to Stalin after 1928: they took at face value Stalin’s industrialisation-by-terror as the implementation, in some form, of the Left Opposition’s own programme. The fact that some Trotskyists still regard a bureaucratically deformed “plan” (sic) as proof of the superiority of “socialist” planning (and accuse any nay-sayers of “Stalinophobia”) suggests that the errors of Preobrazhensky, Radek, and the others, haunt us still.
Nick Davies was writing in a personal capacity.
Revolutionary Regroupment: Not Just an Option but the Only Serious Way Forward for Trotskyism
Gerry Downing, What Next? No.4 1998
The struggle for revolutionary regroupment is essentially the struggle to re-establish the Marxist method: the struggle to re-elaborate and re-conquer the method of the Transitional Programme adopted by the Fourth International at its founding conference in 1938. Having first established the necessity for building a revolutionary party to lead socialist revolution the question immediately arises; how do we establish this party as the real leadership of the class? Certainly neither by opportunist capitulations to the left bureaucracy nor by sterile self-proclamation.
The Transitional Programme was not a schema dreamt up by Trotsky in the thirties to re-direct his followers in difficult times. It is the essence of the communist method of work, distilled from the experiences of the first three revolutionary internationals before these were destroyed by Anarchism, reformism and Stalinism. It is the application of the Marxist dialectic. It is the practical solution to the central problem for revolutionary Marxists; how do we solve the dichotomy between subjective and the objective, how do we give subjective expression to the objective strivings of the masses to make the socialist revolution?
We cannot develop the transitional method without developing a sophisticated approach to the united front. The Leninist-Trotskyist Tendency (LTT) have developed their analysis of these questions at their last Congress and produced them in In Defence of Marxism, No.4 in the resolutions on the united front and the anti-imperialist united front. We cannot, after all, land blows on our opponents in the labour movements, national liberation movements, organisations of the specifically oppressed, etc, if we are not engaged with them in common struggle. And we cannot get a real united front operation until there is a real movement in the masses to force the bureaucrats to lead, or mislead, some struggles.
The collapse of Stalinism in eastern Europe in 1989, and in the former USSR in 1991, clarified for some the nature of the period. The bourgeoisie is in the driving seat, aided by its political agents in the workers’ movement. It is accelerating its offensive begun after the mid-seventies with increasing successes. For serious Trotskyists the awful truth is apparent in such moments. When opportunities presented themselves, those who called themselves Trotskyists could advance no viable tactics to defend the class, let alone take forward their strategy of socialist revolution.
We can only regard with contempt those groups who deny the defeats and therefore do not re-assess, do not seek to learn the lessons of past defeats – the mindset of the now thankfully collapsed Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP/Workers Press) who proclaimed to their death that the miners’ strike of 1984/85 was not defeated. Many groups who hailed the fall of the Berlin Wall as the opening of the political revolution (Workers Press, USFI, Lambertists, Morenoites, etc) against Stalinism persist with the claim that the world revolution is proceeding swimmingly, despite the obvious movement in the opposite direction. Some, like the LRCI, tie themselves in knots with silly theories of “a counter-revolutionary phase in a revolutionary period”. In fact getting the nature of the period correct is in many ways more important than agreeing whether or not these are now capitalist states. However, the continued denial of this, despite the clear empirical evidence to the contrary, does speak of a serious failure to apply the Marxist method.
The old, old problems in the labour movement were everywhere apparent in the politics and practices of self-proclaimed Trotskyist groups like the Healyites, the Mandelites, the Morenoites, the Lambertists, the Sparts and Lutte Ouvrière, to mention just a few. There was the maximum programme for abstract propaganda for the socialist revolution (for some solely within their own groups), there was the minimum programme of realisable reforms, and between the two there was no connecting bridge of the transitional method to advance the consciousness of the masses. There are many maximalists, more minimalists, but few transitionalists.
Because we had no understanding of the transitional method we could do little to influence the course of these struggles. Our implantation in the working class was too shallow, our influence too slender to make any substantial difference to the outcome of these epoch-making struggles. The political strategy of the bourgeoisie swept the class aside, and we could not prevent it. We are increasingly marginalised by this rightward drift. We desperately need to get our act together to begin to turn things around. The hold of the bureaucratic mis-leaderships, both right and left, on the working class must begin to be challenged and broken if the class is to regain its consciousness of its separate identity and interests as a class and the methods of struggle necessary to defend those interests, its confidence in its own ability to fight and win its own demands on its own account. These are the essential first steps on the road to revolution.
To acknowledge the problem is not to descend into pessimism. It is to face reality squarely and seek the answers to lead the class out of this impasse. The Fourth International descended into centrism at the end of the Second World War. The centrist products of the process of fragmentation since then have all but lost the ability to relate to the masses via the transitional method. They substitute either opportunist capitulation to left bureaucrats and/or left nationalists, or else they use the method of sectarian self-proclamation without attempting to relate to the masses at all. This is not to deny that there have been many serious attempts to re-assert this method, particularly since the sixties, but they all failed eventually.
The key lies in our attitude to the vanguard, to the left labour-movement bureaucracy, left bourgeois nationalists and the bureaucratic mis-leaders of the movements of the specifically oppressed, and therefore to the masses themselves. These questions contain the whole heritage of revolutionary Marxism. Its future depends on our ability to re-elaborate and re-apply that heritage in the resolution of these questions, in practice, in the class struggle today.
Contained in these principles are the seeds of the differences that divide the left in Britain and internationally: do we call for a vote for the British Labour Party and why, if so are there exceptions, do we call for a vote for bourgeois workers’ parties in general? Do we call for a vote for them when they are in a popular-front coalition, do we work inside the mass bourgeois workers’ parties, do we place demands on the bureaucratic mis-leaders of the working class and if so what type of demands under what circumstances?
Is it ever possible to call for a vote for a petit-bourgeois national-liberation group and under what circumstances? Do we support the right to self-determination of oppressed nations in all, circumstances and if not what are the exceptions? At what stage do we positively advocate and fight for these rights as opposed to acknowledging and arguing against them for the sake of the unity of the working class, i.e. at what stage is opposition to self-determination detrimental to forging the unity of the working class? Is the defence of a workers’ state always higher than the right to self-determination and are they necessarily counterposed? Do we advocate the right to self-organisation of the specifically oppressed and does this contradict the struggle for the unity of the working class in struggle? What is the correct method of work in this milieu?
All the above questions have been fought out among those claiming the heritage of Trotskyism over the past period. We are partisan on these questions, we have fought for our political line on these questions in our publications and interventions. The purpose of this article is not to supply detailed answers to all these questions (this is the task of other articles in the regroupment struggles themselves) but to outline the method behind how we arrive at answers. Of course, a correct method will not guarantee correct answers to every question but does guarantee a generally correct orientation. Below is outlined what we regard as the correct method.
The practice of the transitional method
To carry out entrism and fraction work effectively presupposes a democratic-centralist international tendency with coherent and integrated political perspectives, and a leadership which has the confidence of the membership on the basis of a proven track record. Without this, attempts to carry out work in mass political organisations will lead to various forms of routinism, adaptation or national exceptionalism, and political differences will inevitably lead to confusion and splits.
The tactics advocated by Trotsky in the 1930s towards mass workers parties retain their validity and do not depend merely upon the particular conjuncture which prompted them. By extension, they also apply under some conditions to other formations (e.g. petit-bourgeois nationalist movements) which have the allegiance of the mass of the working class. Such experiences have shown the variety and flexibility of the tactics necessary to build the nucleus of mass Trotskyist parties.
We reaffirm the stages necessary in entrist tactics – particularly the necessity of a period of implantation; the maintenance of the democratic centralism of the entrist group (whether or not it has a publication); and the recognition of the correct time to split. This requires a careful estimate of the trajectory of the host centrist, reformist or nationalist organisation, and particularly its rank and file. These tactics are necessary for work within large, bureaucratically-controlled organisations.
With centrist groups who move to the left and are of more comparable size to our own the possibility exists of winning the entire group to Trotskyism and we should work for that if we fuse with or join them – with due humility on our part, recognising that because of the crisis of Trotskyism we ourselves may have much to learn from our new group or partners in fusion. We stress that this is not to be seen as a raiding party but as real and ongoing political struggle – a battle for Trotskyism which emphasises always the road to the working class via the ideological struggle to win the vanguard – openly fought for wherever we get an audience.
The need to carry out entrism or fraction work arises from the impossibility of small groups applying the united front towards mass organisations from outside. We must not confuse common actions between left groups for genuine united fronts, despite their frequently similar method. To do so leads all too often to substituting the one for the other, and results in sectarianism and self-proclamation sheltering behind a verbal commitment to united front policy. The LRCI, for instance, maintains that there is no distinction between common actions and united fronts, and increasingly turns its back upon mass organisations in favour of “build the party” exhortations.
No revolutionary organisation today is in the position of the KPD in the early 1930s, when Trotsky advocated the workers’ united front. With its mass following, the KPD would have been able to put the larger SPD under extreme pressure and win its mass base if it had applied the united front. Today, with tiny forces, we must be prepared, in countries where it is relevant, to work among the vanguard of the working class within the mass social-democratic movements on a long term basis where this is possible.
It really is necessary to make a comprehensive assessment of the period and where we stand in relation to it. The sectarians who call themselves Trotskyists will forever quote Trotsky on these points to prove entryism is not allowable, that to vote for Labour is a betrayal, etc.
“The Communist Party cannot fulfill its mission except by preserving, completely and unconditionally, its political and organisational independence apart from all other organisations within and without the working class. To transgress this basic principle of Marxist policy is to commit the most heinous of crimes against the interests of the proletariat as a class.”
The US League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) reproduces this quotation in its “Reformism and ‘rank-and-filism’: The communist alternative”. The quotation is undated and unsourced. It is from Trotsky’s Writings on Germany and refers to a Communist Party that polled six million votes. To directly equate the tasks of the LRP or similarly-sized groups with the tactics appropriate to a mass party of the working class, which Trotsky was attempting to win to revolutionary politics, is incredibly stupid. They obviously hope that readers were unfamiliar with his advice to the French Trotskyists to enter the Socialist Party and his similar advice to Cannon and the US Trotskyists to adopt similar tactics. Ahistorical quotation-chopping can teach nothing.
The balance to strike between open, fraction and entry work can only be assessed on the basis of real experiences and an estimate of the dynamics within reformism (e.g. whether a left current exists or is developing which can be won to revolutionary politics). However, we explicitly reject the notion that Trotskyists should constitute themselves as “the left of the left” – i.e. as part of a continuum stretching from left reformism to revolutionary Marxism. Such a formula, beloved in the USFI, obliterates or blurs the qualitative difference between reformism, no matter how left, and revolution.
We must first of all establish the difference between propaganda and agitation. This is necessary because there is both a distinction between the vanguard and the class, and a dialectical interconnection between the two which we must understand.
Vanguard and masses, propaganda and agitation
In The History of American Trotskyism, J.P. Cannon, following Plekhanov, wrote: “Propaganda he defined as the dissimilation of many fundamental ideas to a few people; what we in America are accustomed to call education. Agitation he defined as the dissemination of a few ideas, or only one idea to many people. Propaganda is directed towards the vanguard, agitation towards the masses.”
The vanguard of the working class often acts in contradiction to the masses, pushing the masses out of their passivity. Strikes do not happen because one morning the workers simultaneously get angry and walk out. No, they have been prepared for this struggle by the constant propaganda of a small but vitally important vanguard. These are politically advanced workers who know the basis of the class struggle; the bosses only concede what they are forced to by strike action or the threat of it.
Of course a political “vanguard” of another type emerges and develops. Under the impact of big political events the petit bourgeoisie and the students become radicalised and are attracted towards revolutionary solutions and groups (e.g. after Paris 1968). The obvious problem with this layer is that it lacks implantation and political connection with the masses and the organised working class in particular. Various Trotskyist centrist groups then supply this detached vanguard with an ideology which denies or blurs this problem. Ultimately the capitalists’ class itself will concede nothing of substance unless they are threatened by the spectre of the revolution itself. But remember that for all its radicalisation ’68 was sold out by the Communist Party who had the implantation to do so where it really mattered, in the workplaces.
When a new vanguard layer first begins to develop organically from the ranks of the working class, it is faced with a dilemma. It can join a “Trotskyoid” cult which supplies it with a (distorted) explanation of how the world works in class terms but has no practical application for these politics. If it joins, its members become ultra-left freaks who harangue the working class from the sidelines but are unable to re-discover their initial connections with the class and leadership potential.
Or, alternatively, they are convinced by the arguments of the left bureaucracy (and its centrist and Stalinist apologists) that the connection with the ranks of the working class must be maintained at the expense of the struggle for all revolutionary solutions or radical initiatives. Thus the corrupting influence of the bureaucracy and its apologists is supplemented by the ultra-left radicals who have no transitional method to build a bridge that leads the workers from mass action to revolutionary solutions. The vanguard are isolated because they do not understand that propaganda is for educating a new leadership and mass agitation for the proximate struggle is to win the confidence of the class by showing them a real way forward.
If we do not understand this we will not be able to relate to the working class at all. We will not be able to distinguish between the vanguard and the masses and will not know how to relate to both jointly and separately. Truly to relate to such mass action, the communists must realise that the key link to grasp, in order to have possession of the entire chain is the communists’ relationship to the vanguard, not directly to the masses.
The correct method is commonly referred to in the US as the flanking tactic, mobilizing against the boss and catching the bureaucrats in the cross fire of socialist propaganda when they refuse to fight or fight inadequately. This dual tactic is the essence of the united front work in trade unions and in all its other applications. We must make a united front not only with those who seriously want to fight but most importantly with the representatives of the bosses and careerists who represent the trade union bureaucracy that are forced into action by the pressure from the working class.
In order to continually direct our fire at the main political problem facing workers in struggle, the crisis of leadership, this offensive must reject two pitfalls; that from the right and from the ultra-left. The ultimate consequences of both errors are the same, whatever the good intentions of some ultra-leftist rank-and-filers.
The right tactic relies on getting members elected to positions of influence in unions, etc, and tends to oppose mass actions. The ranks are thus increasingly excluded because deals need to be stitched up with opponents to the right. This can be called electoralism. Whilst most who operate this method deny that this is what they are doing, the details of the sordid compromises to defend positions and abandon opportunities to mobilise their members make clear who is operating the method. The CPGB were totally consumed by electoralism from the 1950s. Today many Broad Left caucuses that the Socialist Party (Militant Labour) dominate, like the CPSA, pursue the same line. The SWP tend to vacillate between electoralism and sectarian abstentionism.
The second wrong tactic is ultra-leftist workerist rank-and-fileism and its modern variant, “build-your-own-labour-movement” groups and individuals. The “build-your-owns” differ in the shrillness of their rhetoric and in whether to stand for union positions, etc, but the effect is to leave existing bureaucratic leaderships and structures intact whilst “saving their own souls” by being more ultra-left (and ineffectual) than everyone else. It basically rests on a pessimistic, petit-bourgeois, lack of confidence in the ability of the working class to fight the employers and to do anything about the treachery of their own leadership in the trade unions and labour movement in general at the same time.
A version of this abstentionism is the “build your own labour movement” line pursued by the Workers Press before they collapsed in disarray, the International Communist Party (now the international group the UCFI, David North-led SEPs represented online by the WSWS), who are for smashing the trade unions (together with the Tories, Blairites and BNP), many within Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, etc. Often there is a “live and let live” tacit agreement between many workerist rank-and-filers and the “build-your-owns” and the bureaucracy where these blame the working class for not being super-militant and thereby provide a get-out for the bureaucracy who would fight if only the masses would! The ranks of the working class understand immediately that they need a leadership to fight the capitalists and are obliged to accept the leadership they have if another is not offered.
We must establish at what stage we are in the process of Trotskyist regroupment. Whilst we have a programme for an orientation to all who call themselves Trotskyists and other centrists we must realise that the prime task today is left Trotskyist regroupment. We must get together a critical mass for intervention in the class struggle before we can have any appreciable effect on the larger centrists groups of Trotskyist origin, let alone others. Therefore we need to be very organisationally flexible whilst maintaining programmatic inflexibility.
All manner of entry work, all temporary combinations and liaison committees are possible, provided we hold firmly to our goal. In fact these are mandatory tactics in the present period to allow the fullest development of political struggle and conflict. This is the only serious orientation which recognises the programmatic, theoretical and organisational fragmentation of those claiming continuity with the Trotskyist heritage since the forties. We must bear in mind that while we have much to teach because of the very good theoretical work done by the LTT and WIL, nevertheless we have much to learn also. It is frequently the case that those who are the loudest in proclaiming the necessity for organisational purity to defend political orthodoxy are the last to struggle for those politics when the wider arenas open up. We must Jointly struggle to test out these theoretical conquests in practice in co-operation with other left Trotskyists. This is the only real way we will educate ourselves and the only real basis for regroupment.
In recognition of this dislocation, in conjunction with other left Trotskyists we have scheduled a regroupment conference hopefully in September 1997. We want to have the participation of as many as possible of the left Trotskyist groups who are committed to the project of exploring the prospects for regroupment. This will necessarily entail groups with different political positions on a range of issues.
The lack of an authoritative international centre has not made possible the depth of political debates on crucial questions like Bosnia, the national question, specific social oppression, etc. So individual, relatively isolated groups may arrive at positions which they later feel obliged to defend but which they would not have developed if proper and wide-ranging political discussion was possible. It is therefore politically important to tackle historical differences in the context of developing a common political line on current issues.
Issues like Bosnia and the national question do involve questions of method and these need to be fought out seriously to narrow differences. But for instance, whilst it is important that we have a measure of agreement on the collapse of the Fourth International into centrism between the death of Trotsky and 1953, it is not necessary to agree on all the detailed assessment of exactly when and why.
Since 1989 the main “Trotskyist” groupings internationally have seen intense factional struggles between “optimists” and “pessimists”, between “objectivists” and “voluntarists”, between “liquidators” and “party builders”, between “entrists” and “anti-entrists” – the factional line-ups are endless! But they are the product of a common crisis. The LIT, the CWI (Militant) and the FI(ICR) (Lambertists) have all suffered major splits or purges in recent years.
For a number of years, the USFI has been in thrall to various versions of “recomposing the workers’ movement”. In practice this has meant a series of botched – and sometimes disastrous – “regroupments” with non-revolutionary (Stalinist, Green, left-reformist, etc) forces aimed at building new workers’ parties. In no country has this tactic (which threatens to become an overarching “strategy”) been successful. In some countries it has effectively dispersed the Trotskyist vanguard to the four winds. In fact, this method has been consciously counterposed to regroupment with genuinely revolutionary forces, who are ritually denounced as “sectarian” for failing to suffer from the same illusions as us. Others such as the Morenoites and the Lambertists have likewise sought to accommodate to the right-wing drift of the workers’ movement internationally by hiding their Trotskyism behind broad party fronts and workers’ parties, etc.
Revolutionary regroupment and intervention in mass parties or new political formations are different – if often linked – tasks, and must not be confused. Revolutionary regroupment presupposes winning a minimum necessary level of agreement on a revolutionary programme and grouping together conscious vanguard fighters for the purpose of intervening in the wider workers’ movement, whether in the form of fraction work, entrism or as an independent party.
The level of agreement necessary to enter new radical formations alongside other leftists is correspondingly lower since it is a tactic aimed not at dozens and hundreds, but at tens of thousands. However, the link between the two tactics lies in the necessity for revolutionaries to act as a disciplined “core” in reformist and centrist parties. Without this, no amount of grandiose “recomposition” schemes will add up to a row of beans at the end of the day. Herein lies the importance of an active attitude to regroupment. It follows from this that serious members of the USFI, the Lambertists, Morenoites, etc, must give up the pretence that they are the world Trotskyist movement and instead seriously assess the other forces which lay claim, to the name of Trotskyism and orientate to them on that basis.