Trotskyism and tradition


16/06/2018 by socialistfight

Trotskyism and tradition

Posted: 15 Jun 2018 03:39 PM PDT

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The following is a comment posted by someone identifying himself as ‘muskrat’, with a reply by Frank Brenner.
I think it interesting that David North has given the attention to Steiner and Brenner that he has. He must have a special place in his heart for you guys. Probably your critiques of the SEP/WSWS and North strike a bit too close to home. Also, familiarity can bread contempt, and I am sure that both North and you guys get some enjoyment sharpening your wits at each other expense.
I do enjoy reading the WSWS on a regular basis. I have (over the last year or so) studied up pretty well on Healy, Wohlforth, North including their careers and organizations. I was a long time Trotskyist although never affiliated with their tendency. I no longer see myself as a believer in the Trotskyist narrative. I think peak oil, peak non-renewable resources and overpopulation will pretty much take care of the idea that humanity will abolish capitalism and happily enter into a future of leisure and technological nirvana. The SEP seems to think that the workers of the future will spend their abundant free time attending operas and going to art museums. I have noticed that they and other left groups ignore topics that would tend to disrupt their narrative.
I have not given up on the struggle to for the abolition of capitalism, but I see a much different future will be coming our way, much more along the lines of what Richard Heinberg writes and speaks about.
Trotskyism has proven itself to be almost uniquely capable of splitting into smaller groups and subgroups. Wohlforth references an 800-page book written on the history of world Trotskyism written in around 1985 in his autobiography. I read that book 15 or 20 years ago. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of groups and tendencies out there. Just think what of an updated version of what the world Trotskyist family would look like 34 years after the original book was written. Many of these groups claim to have a direct (and correct) pipeline to the great Trotsky himself including the SEP. None of these groups like to be called sects, despite the fact that all of them aptly fit the dictionary definition. I read Sedova’s resignation letter from the 4th International and found it quite interesting. I noticed that most Trotskyists haven’t commented much on what she had to say, but it probably means something when Trotsky’s widow breaks with the movement her husband organized. Most Trotskyists engage in a form of Trotsky hero worship, and many like the SEP, SL and Permanent Revolution spend a lot of time finding Trotsky quotes to sprinkle into their articles. Most of these groups will admit that Trotsky made some mistakes in the abstract but few will ever bring to light what those mistakes were. Some folks seem to view Trotsky’s writings as sacred literature, such as the Transitional Program. Few seem to grasp the there is a “sell by” date on some Marxist writings including Trotsky’s. Marxism is supposed to be “scientific socialism”. Marxism is supposed to be a living dynamic methodology, and yet so many Marxists out there treat it as a dogma. In my estimation were Trotsky or Marx still alive today it is highly probable that they would have refined their ideas to incorporate new scientific discoveries and other data into their world views. It is also a possibility that this new information might have dramatically altered significant portions of their concepts. Trotsky has been gone now for 78 years. In 1940 most easy to exploit oil was still in the ground waiting to be pumped. High quality veins of copper,coal,iron and etc. were still available to be mined. The human population was half as large. Things are different today. We are nearing the collapse of industrial civilization.
Frank Brenner responds:
Marxists don’t hang on to a tradition out of some fetish. There isn’t a Marxist anywhere who wouldn’t be overjoyed if we could consign all the works of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky to a library specializing in outdated causes. But for that to happen, capitalism would first have been consigned to the garbage dump of history. It’s the persistence of capitalism that keeps Marxism relevant, and never more urgently than now.
But that’s not just true of Marxism. William Faulkner’s much quote line – the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past – seems to hang over all political life. Trump’s election had people running to buy used copies of a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis (It Can’t Happen Here). The rising tide of right wing populism in Europe has evoked a flood of analogies to Weimar Germany and the onset of Nazism. It’s as if the postwar era (until the collapse of the Soviet Union) was an anomaly, a relatively brief (by historical standards) era of peace and prosperity before we got back to the way things really are under capitalism – authoritarianism, xenophobia, burgeoning neo-fascism, war and social inequality of neo-feudal proportions.
None of this justifies abusing the Marxist tradition by turning it into a dogma. The relationship of contemporary Marxists to our tradition always has to be a dialectical one. We work, within the limits of our abilities, to transcend the tradition – which is to say, to reexamine old assumptions, extend our analysis to aspects of social and economic life previously ignored and above all else to try to grasp what is new in the objective situation and how that reshapes mass consciousness. But – and this is crucial – we do that work while standing on the shoulders of giants. Dogmatists never stand. Others (including you, it would seem) have decided to jump off. I think those are both mistakes.
You say that you haven’t given up on the struggle to abolish capitalism. But when you walk away from the Marxist tradition – which of course I identify with Trotskyism – then that’s just what you have given up on. I don’t mean this in a moral sense. Lots of people condemn capitalism. But what they don’t have (or, as in your case, have abandoned) is any hope for an alternative to the system, let alone any way of fighting to bring it about.
As to your references to peak oil etc., this is hopelessness dressed up as an argument. Not that I’m denying the seriousness of the environmental crisis, but arguments like this have the character of a deux ex machina. An impending objective crisis (e.g. environment, population, peak oil etc.) will overwhelm human society and bring capitalism crashing down. Or, to cite the title of Naomi Klein’s recent book on climate change, This Changes Everything. But it doesn’t – not by itself.
To be sure, any of these crises may lead to collapse and calamity. But by itself this will not bring an end to class exploitation. All it will do is change the conditions of that exploitation, making them tremendously worse. Or possibly bring all of human society crashing down. Peak oil-type arguments aren’t a political perspective for radical social change but a dystopia bred of hopelessness. Dystopias can, on occasion, be enjoyable reading but they contribute nothing useful politically. Basically, they amount to handing the human race an ultimatum: Here is the truth, and if you refuse to accept it, you will be destroyed! Perhaps this sort of approach works if you’re a Klingon possessed of a mammoth death starship, but in a human context it will achieve nothing except to breed despair. Here you might be considerably better off consulting the yellowed pages of your old Trotskyist texts.
It’s true – the history of Trotskyism since 1940 has been a record of countless splits, producing ever tinier groups and sects with so many acronyms you’d need a catalogue the size of a phone book to figure them all out. But who on the left has done better: the social democrats? the Stalinists? the Maoists? the anarchists? In the broad historical context, the entire left has suffered a terrible shipwreck. The more ‘established’ left didn’t undergo so many splits – they simply betrayed every principle they ever claimed to stand for and drove their working-class base into the hands of the neo-fascists. The Trotskyists held on to their revolutionary beliefs but kept banging their heads against the brick wall of the postwar boom and the Stalinist bureaucracy. Bang your head for long enough and it goes to pieces.
But a new generation is emerging politically, and it has the bizarre notion that it can actually change the world. To bring that off, it’s going to need, not dogma, but insight – and it won’t find more of it anywhere than in the remnants of the Trotskyist tradition.

One thought on “Trotskyism and tradition

  1. Bill Warren says:

    Post WWII boom has been dying since the 1970s. The limits to growth argument makes me want
    to read the LaRouche Pollyana Crapo. After all there is more methane in Uranus than there in
    oxygen on earth to burn it and minerals in asteroids and the Earth’s core than we could possibly use ,just not economically feasible to access at present.
    The main thing is, now that the Soviet Union is over what distinguishes the 4th Internationalist tradition from, on the one hand the Left Communist stream and on the other hand the Mao and Hoxha memorial cultists


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