60 people attended the meeting held by Workers' Liberty on 21 September to mark the 70th anniversary of Leon Trotsky's assassination. There was a lively debate from the panel and the floor.
We had six speakers. Jill Mountford argued that even socialists, hostile on principle to any "established" authority, should regard Trotsky as a hero.
Recounting the outline of Trotsky's life, Jill said that not just the famous high points of that life - as leader of the Petersburg Soviet in 1905, organiser of the Bolshevik insurrection in October 1917, and chief of the Red Army - should make him our hero. The indomitable spirit that had him organising and speaking at small semi-clandestine meetings in workers' flats in Petersburg and Moscow in 1927, in order to win a few more workers one-by-one to the Left Opposition against Stalin, is equally essential.
Farooq Tariq spoke - by slightly precarious phone link-up, in what French speaker Yvan Lemaitre described as "an act of lively internationalism" - about the influence of Trotskyist ideas in Pakistan, and their importance in combating non-working-class, populist conceptions of socialism. He described the role of his organisation, the Labour Party Pakistan, in bringing relief to victims of the recent floods, and how they have used this opportunity to extend their influence and help struggles against the landlords and capitalists in rural areas.
Yvan, who is a member of the national committee of France's New Anticapitalist Party - discussed what he sees as the fundamental political legacies of Trotskyism, stressing the role of transitional demands. He also argued that the NPA is important as an experiment in overcoming the sectarianism which has dogged the Trotskyist tradition, and that it would be necessary to work for a realignment internationally with revolutionaries who do not come from this tradition but are approaching conclusions similar to the important elements of Trotskyism.
Kim Moody discussed the concept of transitional demands more extensively. He said that, whether or not Trotsky was right to argue in the 1930s that the crisis of the workers' movement was essentially a "crisis of leadership", today's crisis is far more deep-going, a crisis of basic working-class organisation. We need to renovate the labour movement from the bottom up; while revolutionary socialist organisation is still necessary, helping revive and develop working-class organisation and initiative should be our central focus. He argued for "transitional organisations", organising centres, journals and so on, on the model of Labor Notes in the United States, as a bridge between the mass labour movement and the revolutionary left, and between where we are now and where we want to get to.
John McDonnell spoke about the importance of Trotskyism for the struggle against the bosses and the Tories, arguing that it should mean a combination of political radicalism and non-sectarian orientation to work in mass labour movement organisations.
Sean Matgamna described the impact that Trotsky's writings - then mostly available only with difficulty, and only in thin pamphlets on cheap paper - had for opening a way to revolutionary socialism for activists in a left dominated by the Communist Party in the late 1950s.
Trotsky looms as a unique figure in the first half of the 20th century, because at the end he was a unique personification of a revolutionary working-class tradition and culture which had mostly sunk, like the mythical continent of Atlantis, below the waves of Stalinist counter-revolution.
But his uniqueness does not mean that he is so remote a figure as to make it impossible for more ordinary people to learn from him. Trotsky's life and contribution was shaped not only by his undoubtedly great individual abilities, but by a whole movement, the Russian revolutionary movement, which he joined as a teenager.
We cannot be "Trotsky-olators". Even those who say that we should adopt this or that stance because "Trotsky said so" are in fact making their own decision - only doing so in a way utterly contrary to Trotsky's spirit and method of thinking.
AWL does not believe Trotsky was right about everything. For example, we think that in the 1930s he was wrong on the nature of the Stalinist state: it had in fact become a new class-exploitative system, rather than the "degenerated workers' state" he called it. And by definition Trotsky's writings from over 70 years ago cannot give us direct guidance for today.
But Trotsky's writings provide a rich handbook for us today.