Book Review: Contemporary Trotskyism By Professor John Kelly – Part 1

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20/03/2019 by socialistfight

By Gerry Downing

John Kelly writes the book from the perspective of a social(ist) scientist. He has no ‘dog in the race’ so is relatively objective in his assessments. A former member of the Communist Party (1980s) there are certain indications of that political education in the book, but he is no ‘Stalinist’. As he ranges over 22 Trotskyist groups in Britain and 23 Trotskyist Internationals it is pertinent also to review the reviews of the book by those assessed at the same time, what they made of his assessments of themselves and where they thought he got it right and where wrong. This is necessary because this book and the reaction to it also constitutes part of the struggle for Trotskyism.

History is always ‘this-sided’; the struggle between nature and nurture, between the subjective and the objective is the most difficult question, the most fought over and the most important of all questions facing Marxism. For instance, the Board of Deputies and every Zionist organisation in Britain and internationally has attacked Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party with accusations of anti-Semitism. This is, in one sense an objective factor now in the political and class struggle in Britain and internationally.  But it was a subjective choice, and all evidence shows it was and continues to be a well-planned attack. How Corbyn. John McDonnell and John Lansman responded is also a subjective choice. But that choice determines the objective political situation in which the next general election and the general class struggle will be fought. And we must say the response could scarcely have been worse, with each of the latter two worse than the bad previous one.

And Marx famously wrote in The Introduction to Contribution to The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right, “the weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.” (quoted by the Colin Foster, AWL in his review of the book)

What is Trotskyism?
John Kelly analyses those who claim the name and heritage of Trotskyism and sees Trotskyism today as having nine central tenets: (1) Permanent revolution, (2) The united front, (3) Transitional demands, (4) The USSR as a workers state, (5) The Fourth international, (6) The vanguard party, (7) rank and file-ism, (8) Soviet power, and (9) anti- imperialism. (p.18)

And he identifies seven ‘families of Trotskyism in p. 72:

Socialist Fight would agree with all nine and consider we have been correctly located in the Orthodox family group. In fact, we would claim to be the only group to defend all nine with the consistency our resources allow.

1. Permanent Revolution

In a footnote on the inclusion of the Communist League (Jack Barnes, US SWP, British affiliate) in the Mainstream group with Socialist Resistance (USFI section) Kelly asks, “how many elements of the core doctrine can be rejected before you cease to be a Trotskyist”? (p. 74). The US SWP repudiated Permanent Revolution in a speech by Barnes in late 1982, Their Trotsky and Ours: in which he said, “most of us will not call this movement ‘Trotskyist’ before this decade is out”. [i] They expelled almost half of the group, who rejected this capitulation, in 1983 and 84 and no longer claim to be Trotskyists and are not included in those big lists that give the names of the Trotskyists groups in each country. It was a mistake to include them, it is doubtful if they really support any of the nine tenets. Alex Callinicos of the UK SWP (Third Camp) defends many elements of Trotskyism against Barnes in his article, Their Trotskyism and Ours in 1984. [ii]

Barry Biddulph, in his review of the book, shows some of the problems of the of designation all these groups as Trotskyist:

“The IS/SWP rejected the USSR as a workers’ state, dismissed the vanguard party as toy town Bolshevism until 1968, abandoned rank and file-ism, revised permanent revolution as deflected permanent revolution, avoided Transitional demands for practical politics and veered away from the united front tactic for single-issue campaigns. The Militant/Socialist party abandoned Soviet power for the idea of a peaceful parliamentary road, prefers broad alliances to rank and file-ism and revised permanent revolution by insisting deformed workers states can be formed by non-working class forces.”

A repudiation of Permanent Revolution really does put you outside of the Trotskyist family, because the other eight tenets follow from that; Kelly rightly puts it at No. 1. Not that he understands it fully himself. He gives several examples of peasant-led revolution (p 20) as examples of revolutions which succeeded without Permanent Revolution. Where are they now? The Russian Revolution was working class led and has never been superseded because its internationalism threatened the citadels of imperialism in Europe and North America, etc. Stalinists knew that socialism in a single country was a pact between Stalin and imperialism to guarantee the survival of imperialism without challenges as long as they were allowed to get on with their privileges in the USSR.

Trotsky changed his position on this depending on circumstances, Kelly thinks, citing Trotsky’s role in the Treaty of Rapallo with Germany in April 1922 as an example. You do not change your position, when you merely change your priorities in certain circumstances.

He has read Felix Morrow’s Revolution and Counterrevolution in Spain, notes its importance to all serious Trotskyists but then complains about his “sectarian hostility” to the Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) as outlined in a book by two POUM followers. Solano and Iglesias. We do not have this book, but we do have an article by one of the two, outlining his differences with Trotsky on Spain, The historical significance of the POUM by Wilebaldo Solano (last General Secretary of the POUM, 1935-1980). He is somewhat economical with the truth in making his case: “The POUM was the product of the merger of two communist organizations that were independent of Moscow … the Workers and Peasants Bloc and the Communist Left.”

The United Front and the Right Opposition

The Workers and Peasants Bloc were followers of Nikolai Bukharin, the Right Opposition, and the Communist Left were followers of Trotsky’s Left Opposition. This was a merger of the right and left against the centre, the Stalinists, which was a political collapse which Trotsky vehemently opposed, as we shall see later. Of course, you cannot have a party where the workers and peasants are in a bloc together, which class was to lead? Nikolai Bukharin’s famous quote from his 1925 speech, “Overall, we need to say to the entire peasantry, to all its different strata: enrich yourselves, accumulate, develop your farms. Only idiots can say that the poor must always be with us. We must now implement a policy which will result in the disappearance of poverty” [iii] marks him out as a capitalist roader which took the New Economic Policy (NEP) to the brink of capitalist restoration in the USSR. This forced his closest ally up to then, Stalin to adopt the ruinous policy of forced collectivisation from 1928. Far from enriching them he now proceeded to “liquidate the Kulaks (rich peasants) as a class” which resulted in the famine in the big agriculture regions, over seven million starved, particularly in Ukraine in 1931-32. That is one of the reasons for the rightist nature of western Ukraine and the predominance of fascist forces there. By the time of the merger in 1935 Bukharin’s days were numbered (executed by Stalin March 1938).

We mentioned 1928 as the date of the commencement of forced Collectivisation in the USSR. Trotsky had been expelled from the Communist party in 1927 a few months following the debacle of the massacre of the Shanghai Soviet while the perpetrator, Chiang Kai-shek, was still and honorary member of the Executive Committee of the Comintern, on Stalin’s invite. Bukharin was expelled from the Politburo in 1929 and Stalin was now consolidating his personal dictatorship by snuffing out all opposition to him personally. But 1928 also saw the meeting of the sixth Congress of the Comintern and the adoption of the twin policy of forced collectivisation, the Third Period. Revolution was now on the cards everywhere in the immediate period. There was no time for uniting with other workers parties. The German Social Democrats (SPD) were the main enemy of the revolution and were, like all non-KPD groups, ‘social fascists’. In fact, the Nazis themselves were not such bad fellows; the KPD united with them against the ‘main enemy’, the ‘social fascists’ of the SPD, in Prussia’s Red Referendum of 1931 and in the Berlin Transit strike of November 1932. That this was lunatic ultra-leftism which disastrously split the working class and resulted in Hitler taking power in January 1933 without a shot being fired few on the left would doubt, apart from some cultist Maoists. John Kelly acknowledges this (p. 21)

But the charge of sectarianism against Trotsky for opposing the merging of genuine revolutionary socialists of the Left Opposition with the Right Oppositionists shown his own confusion between what is a united front and what is a popular front. Wilebaldo Solano shows his own confusion on exactly that point:

“1934-1935, having learned the lessons of October, a process of clarification and unification took place in the workers movement. In this context, the Communist Left rejected what it called the “French deviation” of the Trotskyist movement—entrism in the Socialist parties in order to contribute to their radicalization—and voted, after a period of debate and collaboration, to merge with the Workers and Peasants Bloc, in order to create the basis for a mass revolutionary Marxist party throughout the peninsula.”

Of course, Trotsky’s entry tactic in France was not “to contribute to their radicalization” but to win workers and youth to revolutionary Trotskyism. This is a slanderous charge from Solan.  Trotsky’s advice in Spain mirrored his advice in France; enter Largo Caballero’s mass youth movement and relate to revolutionary elements there. Having manoeuvred to oust Caballero and replace him with the rightist Juan Negrín after the May Days in Barcelona in 1937, the Stalinist won control of the youth movement, giving them a mass base for the first time.

It is a popular frontism to give uncritical support for the Catalan bourgeoisie, the same political mistake committed by the leadership of the POUM and the Anarchist CNT in the Second Republic, so clearly spelled out by Trotsky in his conflict with the POUM leaders, Andreas Nin of the Communist Left and Joaquim Maurín of the Workers and Peasants Bloc.


Andrés Nin versus Joaquín Maurín, la venganza comunista frente al perdón franquista.

The Popular Front

The Popular Front was a rightist degeneration of Stalinism, officially adopted by the Comintern in 1935 at its Seventh and last Congress. Stalin’s man, Georgi Dimitrov, now explicitly abandoned class politics by allying with the liberal bourgeoisie, and the “democratic imperialists” to reject the Leninist-Bolshevik programme of socialist revolution as outlined in the April Theses and as won in the great October Revolution, for the stageist perspective of first defeat fascism and later – in practice never – the socialist revolution. In fact, the social revolution is only possible in moments of acute political and economic crisis such as developed in Spain in the middle 1930s.

Caught behind the lines Maurín was murdered by the fascists in 1936. Nin was tortured and murdered by the Stalinist GPU after they crushed the revolution by defeating the May Days uprising in Barcelona in 1936 to appease the “democratic imperialists”. Having failed to appease the “democratic imperialists” Stalin sought to appease the “fascist imperialists” in August 1939 via the Stalin-Hitler pact, when the Spanish Revolution was not yet cold in its grave.

Trotsky made this rejection of the popular frontism of Maurín in 1931, four years before Dimitrov adopted the policy of the Popular Front:

“Maurín, the “leader” of the Workers and Peasants Bloc, shares the point of view of (Catalan) separatism. After certain hesitation, he has resolved himself with the left wing of petty bourgeois nationalism. I have already written that Catalan petty bourgeois nationalism at the present stage is progressive. But on one condition: that it develops its activity outside the ranks of Communism and that it is always under the blows of communist criticism. To permit petty-bourgeois nationalism to manifest itself under the Communist mask means at the same time to deliver a perfidious blow to the proletarian vanguard and to kill the progressive significance of petty bourgeois nationalism.” [iv]

But Solan defends the Popular Front capitulation of 1936:

“In February 1936, the POUM participated in the working class-republican electoral coalition without ever ceasing to criticize the policies of the Popular Front and always maintaining its class independence.”

That was just what it did not do. Then he goes on:

“The POUM’s participation in the Council of the Generalitat (government of Catalonia)—which was, we must not forget, the institution of an oppressed nationality whose destruction was one of the main objectives of all the reactionaries—was bitterly disputed within the POUM, which was not a monolithic party. One may think that it was right or wrong. One may think, like Nin, Molins i Fábregas and Landau—all of whom were former veteran Trotskyist militants—that the Generalitat of that time “displayed a mixture of institutions of dual power”, that it was “a transitional situation” in which the determinant factors consisted in the working class majority and the socialist program of the coalition. One may very well dissent from this point of view with equally valid arguments.” [v]

Two opposite arguments are “equally valid? And what were the “equally valid” opposing arguments? They are the one supplied by Trotsky above, of course.


[i] J. Barnes, Their Trotsky and Ours: Communist Continuity Today, New International (1983).

[ii] Alex Callinicos, International Socialism, Winter 1984, pp. 117–42, Their Trotskyism and Ours, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/callinicos/1984/xx/trotsky.htm#n5

[iii] N I Bukharin: 17 April 1925  “Enrich yourselves” Excerpt from a report to a conference of Moscow party activists: “On the New Economic Policy and Our Tasks”, http://www.korolevperevody.co.uk/obogashchaytes.html

[iv] Leon Trotsky, The National Question in Catalonia, (July 1931), https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/07/spain01.htm

[v] Wilebaldo Solano (last General Secretary of the POUM, 1935-1980), The historical significance of the POUM https://libcom.org/history/historical-significance-poum-wilebaldo-solano

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