[The post below is something I wrote two decades ago in reference to a long-forgotten conference dealing with the legacy of Trotskyism. It was written for the Marxism email list, maintained to this day by Unrepentant Marxist Louis Proyect, who together with this writer and many other on that list in those days, had come out of the wreckage of what had been until the 1980s the main Trotskyist group in the United States, the Socialist Workers Party.
[I had been a prominent leader of the SWP for several years before leaving the group in 1985. A few months earlier in the year 2000 I'd become embroiled in a controversy with the SWP over the case of Cuban 6-year-old Elián González, which earned me a two-page centerfold spread denunciation in the May 22, 2000, edition of the paper, which was a gratifying confirmation that the criticism I'd leveled against the SWP cult for denouncing the raid that freed Elián and returned him to his father had struck home.
[Recently there's been a lot of discussion in the DSA around various issues that led me to seek out and re-read this old post. That led me to think it was worth resurrecting although I do not have the time to explain why apart from saying that the underlying issues of the relationship between the actual social movement of working people, political organizations, and ideology or "theory" are present in both cases.
[Unfortunately I also don't have the time to try to make this post more understandable to those who did not live through those times as part of those circles. But I wanted to make it accessible as I started to write an article about current concerns where I wound up making reference to this post.]
* * *
Date: Fri, 06 Oct 2000 00:07:19 -0700
I've read with some interest the reports on
the conference and related matters.
It seems to me the question that deserves
the most thought is the legacy of Trotsky, of Trotskyism, and of the Trotskyist
movement. They are not the same thing.
To start with the Trotskyist movement. It
seems to me the current of Bolshevik-Leninists that arose in the USSR to fight
against the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union was entirely
progressive and historically necessary. It was most of all a fight to rescue
and preserve genuine Marxism. I believe Trotsky will be long remembered for
this. And his analysis and understanding of the degeneration of the Soviet
Union is now part of the ABC's of Marxism.
I think [Argentine socialist] Nestor [Gorojovsky] is right to place the
Russian Revolution in the context of the great sweep of revolutions called
forth by the development of capitalism in Europe, and the events now going on
in Belgrade as quite likely their closing chapter.
I do not believe the Belgrade events close
the book on the Trotskyist movement, however, no more than the 1989-1991
capitalist restorationist counterrevolution in
the USSR and Central and Eastern Europe did. I believe the book was
closed on the specifically Trotskyist movement as "the" revolutionary
movement by the Second World War and its immediate result, the anticolonial
revolution, and this was shown in practice in China in 1949, and confirmed
again in the 50s in Korea, Vietnam, Cuba and Algeria.
The case of Cuba is particularly definitive
because there was no question there but that these were fresh revolutionary
currents, totally outside the by-then "traditional" tendencies in the
workers and communist movement. There were undoubtedly many individuals who
came out of the Trotskyist tradition or who were influenced by it who simply
became part of the Cuban revolutionary movement. But those who chose to remain
specifically and distinctively Trotskyist became, inevitably and irremediably, a
In fact, the Trotskyist movement had been
in a certain sense a sect all along, since the 1930s. I do not mean by this
that they were sectarian (though many were) but that they were a strictly
ideological formation, with a fully worked out theory and program, and the
boundaries of the group were set overwhelmingly by this ideological frontier. A
few times various Trotskyist groups began to go beyond being a mere sect
formation in the direction of being an expression of the actual movement of
social forces, but these remained in all cases, as far as I know, extremely
limited and partial developments. In the one case I know best, that of the SWP
in the mid-70s, the development was totally unconscious, a byproduct of its
"intervention" in the mass movements of those days, and no one in the
SWP except perhaps Peter Camejo even had an inkling of what was going on, what
it really meant. Even incipient as Peter's tendency towards de-sectification
may have been, he was instinctively rejected and pushed outside the party as a
I don't say this lightly, and it may seem
to contradict what I said before about the importance of the fight waged by
Trotsky and his comrades to preserve genuine revolutionary Marxism. But it was
inevitable under the circumstances given the nature of the fight, an
ideological one, that it had to be waged precisely by sect-like formations.
Engels once said, I think in reference to the American SLP, that even sects can
play a positive role during periods of downturn, because they keep alive
socialist ideas. Or to put it in
American terms, without DeLeon, there would have been no Debs.
Marx and Engels's Communist League was a
very similar formation to the Trotskyist movement, a purely ideological group,
a group that largely played a role in the fight over ideas, creating a clear,
Marxist pole of attraction in the inchoate communist rebelliousness of the
mid-1840s. But it was a consciously anti-sect "sect," a group whose
central ideological leaders understood that, at bottom, communism was not a
doctrine but a movement, that the role of communists was not to teach the
proletariat how to fight but to learn, to draw lessons and generalize them,
bring to consciousness the actual existing social tendencies, motion and
struggle. That's why in 1848, with the ink on the Manifesto barely dry, the
Communists disbanded the Communist League, and Marx, Engels and some of their
closest friends set up a daily newspaper instead.
The Communist League was briefly reborn
following the defeat of the revolutions of 1848, when it was unclear whether
the defeat was for an entire period of merely a momentary setback. When the
actual reactionary nature of the new period, based on a vigorous capitalist
expansion became clear, Marx, Engels and their closest friends made the
conscious decision to wind up the organization. This was the logical, practical
result of what they wrote in the Manifesto that the Communists did not have a
set of their own sectarian principles by which to shape and mold the proletarian
movement. Marx and Engels turned instead to strictly literary and theoretical
Similarly, throughout the 1930s and into
the 40s, while the largely ideological battle against the Stalinist perversion
of Marxism was paramount, the existence of these new "Communist
Leagues" seems to me quite justified. But with the emergence of the
anticolonial revolution, the right decision, whatever its forms, would have
been to do something like what Marx and Engels did when the revolution in
Germany broke out in 1848. China proved the Fourth International was not in fact the world party
of socialist revolution, and to maintain those structures and groups could only
lead to one's isolation from the real movement.
The Cuban Revolution unleashed a powerful
wave of radicalization among young people throughout the continent. The
emergence of this new generation of fighters posed very sharply and in real
life the issue of whether the Trotskyists would become part of the renewed
movement or would instead opt to become the church of LDT. Varying currents of
the Trotskyist movement were well represented in Latin America in the 1960s and
1970s, and despite lip service and even World Congress resolutions about
becoming integrated into the historic current represented by OLAS, no
Trotskyist current saw its way clear to doing what Marx and Engels did almost
by instinct in 1848, which is to dissolve into the general revolutionary
The reason for this is that large wings of
the communist movement have abandoned the viewpoint of the Manifesto on an
essential question, the relationship of the communists to the proletariat, the
proletarian movement and to other proletarian parties. Lenin is usually blamed
for this, although usually it is thought of as "credited" with this
and as far as I can tell whether for good or ill, it is a bum rap.
This arose in the 1920s in the Comintern,
and has been deepened and hardened since. And it is not even so much a question
as to whether what the Comintern did in the first congress or the second
congress was the right thing at that time. It is the idea that these are the
right things for all times, places and circumstances, that there is some
"ideal" form of party organization and mass movement form. This is
not Marxism but Platonism, and I think it is totally alien to how Marx and
Engels, and, yes, Lenin, approached these questions.
Whether Trotsky would have had the same
approach of discarding old, worn-out organizational forms is an interesting
question. The comment Nestor quoted about how if W.W.II came out the way it
actually did, all the books would have to be rewritten, is certainly
This idea of "the Leninist strategy of
party building" as the sure-fire formula for revolutionary success, the
turning of the Russian experience into a "model," is a mistake. It is
an understandable mistake, and one that the new generation of fighters that
came up in Latin America in the 60s ALSO made vis-a-vis the Cuban model, but
which the Cuban leadership itself eventually came to recognize as a mistake.
The reason that Cuban communists do not run guns to guerrilla groups in Latin
America today is not that they have abandoned their sympathy, solidarity and
support for revolutionary movements throughout the hemisphere, but because they
do not believe this is helpful, you can't repeat the Cuban experience, history
has proved that, you have to create your own revolutionary tactics and strategy
in each country based on the history, the psychological makeup and concrete
circumstances of each people.
What was wrong with those Trotskyist
currents who tried to become part of the general "Cuba-inspired"
movement while retaining their own identity? It was a totally ideological
differentiation, not a political one. Communism is a movement, not a doctrine,
and if there was to have been a differentiation, it should have been along
political lines of cleavage on what was to be done, on the ground, in specific
circumstances in a specific country, not ideological ones about who was right
in Soviet Russia in 1927.
This insistence on maintaining the Church
of Saint Leon led inevitably to countless political mistakes, such as the US
SWP's insanely sectarian articles about the "Stalinism" of the
Vietnamese comrades and its quite ignorant and arrogant criticisms of the Vietnamese
line on the Paris Peace Accords. Similar things can be said about its stance
towards Chile, the Allende government and the coup, and if more similar
examples are wanted, go to the Militant's web site and look up their articles
on Hugo Chávez.
For to maintain a group around the lessons
of China in the 1920s and Spain in the 1930s at its core can only makes sense
if the issues now are posed in exactly the same way then, so that you could
take Trotsky's articles, change a few names, dates and places, and publish it
as your analysis of something happening today.
This is why I am not a Trotskyist, and it
has, really, nothing to do with how much of what Trotsky wrote I agree with or
how important I think his legacy may be. It has to do with Marx and Engels's
idea that Communism is not a doctrine, it is a movement.
That's why when people
press me on what sort of Marxist I am, I'm much more likely to say that I'm a
fidelista rather than a trotskista, although I agree with Fidel that it's
better not to "personalize" these things. But I said fidelismo
because fidelismo is the communist movement we've got in the here and now
--and, of course, I believe to the marrow of my bones it is genuine 100% real
communism, not some fake or perversion.
If I had lived in Russia in 1917 I hope
I would have been a Leninist, or if in the 20s and 30s, a Trotskyist, but as I
see things, beginning in the late 1940s, "Trotskyism" as a separate
distinct current and organization should have begun to melt into and simply
become part of the past of the revolutionary movement, and certainly by the
early 60s this was an urgent, pressing, overriding political necessity.
To try to maintain a separate, distinct
"Maoist" or "Stalinist" or "Leninist" or even,
depending on the circumstances, a "Fidelista" or "Marxist"
current) cannot but push you in an incorrect political direction, because it
puts you in a false position on the relationship between the communist movement
and communist theory, and on the relationship between the communists and the
working class movement.