Notes on documents from Marksist Tutum (Turkey)

Submitted by AWL on 31 August, 2012 - 4:00

Workers' Liberty has recently begun discussions with a Marxist group active in Turkey, Marksist Tutum [Marxist Attitude]. We made contact with Marksist Tutum thanks to the help of the Iranian Revolutionary Marxists' Tendency.

The IRMT is a continuation of the Iranian Trotskyist group "Socialism and Revolution", with which our tendency had links in the 1980s. We lost contact with the IRMT after the exile group scattered and the IRMT comrades turned their energies to Iran, returning to Iran itself or to nearby countries; but have recently re-established links.

The Marksist Tutum website was started in 2002; the journal has been published since 2005. Since 2006 its supporters have been active in developing a wider workers' association in Turkey called UID-DER (the Association of International Workers’ Solidarity).

The "pre-history" of Marksist Tutum is longer. It goes back to the studies and activities of a small group of comrades who had first become politically active in the Turkish Workers' Party, a legal front organisation promoted by the Turkish Communist Party, and who gradually developed their own Marxist ideas in critique of Stalinist ideologies.

Some of the basic documents of Marksist Tutum date back to the early 1990s. Many of them are available in English on the Markist Tutum website, http://en.marksist.net/.

A survey of those basic documents available in English shows a convergence with the ideas which Workers' Liberty has worked out over the years, starting as we did with a "Cannonite", "orthodox Trotskyist" stock, and progressing to a "Third Camp" stance which rediscovers many ideas developed by the "heterodox Trotskyists" of the 1940s and early 1950s, Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, and others.

In the first place, Marksist Tutum define the basic traditions they draw on as we do:

"Marx and Engels’ efforts to organise the Communist League, and those links that form the revolutionary chain ever since the First International; the Bolshevik Party in Lenin’s time, the Third International in the period of first four congresses, the Left Opposition (Bolshevik-Leninists) led by Trotsky who waged a struggle against Stalinism after Lenin’s death, and subsequently the International Left Opposition (International Communist League) and the general ideological-political legacy of the Fourth International..." ["Our Basic Positions"]

And they reaffirm the centrality of building a revolutionary Marxist organisation which strives unequivocally for political clarity:

"The emancipation of the working class can only be the task of the working class itself. But the political consciousness which is to carry it to its emancipation does not emerge spontaneously out of daily struggles of the mass of the class. In order to be able to raise the consciousness of the workers to the level of consciousness of revolutionary political struggle and achieve the revolutionary political organisation of the class, a vanguard organisation equipped with Marxist theory is needed, striving tirelessly for this end within the class movement" ["Our Basic Positions"]

Another point of convergence, evident more from discussions with the comrades about their activity than from the website documents, is an orientation to activity in workplaces, in working-class milieus, and in working-class organisations.

We agree with what Marksist Tutum say about the approach to international links and discussions between revolutionary socialist organisations today.

"It is no use to dream of finding the twin brother/sister on the international field at the start, which causes loss of time. Life does not flow on the basis of rigid and uniform ideas. Therefore, if there is a ground for unity on fundamental ideological-political and organisational matters, then differences on historical-theoretical matters like for instance the class nature of the USSR should not prevent marching together. But of course discussions and exchange of ideas on these matters must be continued in order to deepen Marxist understanding... Unity must be principled, and at the very beginning a clear attitude must be assumed on differences. Differences should not be concealed. Hastiness and pushing should be avoided" ["The Question of International"].

We also agree, of course, "that an international called for and started by bourgeois left statesmen like Chavez has nothing to do with the formation of an international defended by revolutionary Marxists" ["The Question of International"].

Defining a working-class "Third Camp" against both Stalinism and capitalism

For most of the twentieth century, the framework for left-wing politics was set by a world confrontation between the big capitalist powers and despotic states calling themselves socialist or communist. As Marksist Tutum put it: "Almost all left-wing activists aligned themselves with the Stalinist states, though sometimes adding harsh criticism. While putting an end to the power of the working class, Stalinism entirely distorted the worldview of the working class, i.e. Marxism. And the order of the bureaucracy has been theorised as 'socialism' for long years" ["In the Light of Marxism"].

Stalinist, or semi-Stalinist, or quarter-Stalinist ideas filtered into large parts of the left beyond the official Stalinist parties. Official Stalinist "anti-imperialism" - i.e. alignment with forces and states in conflict with the USA, regardless of the nature of those forces or states and their objectives in the conflict - is still widespread today, making many would-be left activists align with Islamist forces (Hamas, Hezbollah, Taliban, the Iranian government, etc.) because of their conflicts with the USA.

Another key convergence with Marksist Tutum is on Stalinism.

"Such regimes are not a new mode of production surpassing capitalism in the process of historical evolution of human societies [...] they cannot be characterised as 'post-capitalist societies' in this sense. The despotic-bureaucratic regime is a genuine monstrosity if it is considered from the standpoint of the historical epoch and conditions in which it exists. A despotic-bureaucratic regime surrounded by the world capitalism in the age of modern industry is a socio-economic phenomenon which has no future with its peculiar (sui generis) characteristic" ["Our Basic Positions"].

"There is an exploitation of surplus-labour and these regimes belong to the set of exploitative societies" ["The Fate of Isolated Revolution"].

We agree that "there is no rational point in appraising such a labour regime [relative job security in some Stalinist states] as a 'historical gain', in which the working class is deprived of all rights of union, strike etc. in the face of an alienated state" ["The Fate of Isolated Revolution"].

We agree that to cite the features of the Stalinist systems differentiating them from routine capitalist societies as evidence that they are "societies in transition" is a nonsense when those societies are far removed from the working-class governmental power which alone can impel a society along transition from capitalism to socialism.

"Since these regimes are not a new mode of production that excels capitalism in the course of historical evolution of human societies, they cannot be characterised as 'post-capitalist societies' in this sense. Moreover, it is but an illusion that these regimes can continue a progressive evolution in the long term. The despotic-bureaucratic regime, surrounded by world capitalism in modern industrial era, is a socio-economic phenomenon that has no future on the basis of its sui generis character" ["The Fate of Isolated Revolution"].

We agree also that the trajectory of Trotsky's repeatedly-reworked analyses of the Stalinist USSR was towards recognising that the bureaucracy had become much more than a bureaucracy - in fact, an exploitative ruling class - and that the most logical continuation of Trotsky's approach in the light of the facts in the years after his death was to recognise that.

We are glad to note that Marksist Tutum find value in "Shachtman’s analysis [and its] stress on the distinction between property forms and property relations.

"'It is just as obvious that no matter what has been changed and how much it has been changed in the Soviet Union by Stalinism, state ownership of the means of production and exchange continues to exist. It is further obvious that when the proletariat takes the helm again in Russia it will maintain state property.

"'However, what is crucial are not the property forms, i.e., nationalized property, whose existence cannot be denied, but precisely the relations of the various social groups in the Soviet Union to this property, i.e., property relations! If we can speak of nationalized property in the Soviet Union, this does not yet establish what the property relations are'.

"Shachtman concluded that what is described as political expropriation of the proletariat in Trotsky’s analysis was nothing else than the overthrow of the class rule of workers and the end of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state" ["In the Light of Marxism"].

We too have learned much from the work of Max Shachtman and his comrades. The documents of Marksist Tutum refer only to one text of Shachtman's, his 1940 article "Is Russia a Workers' State?" We understand that is because the comrades of Marksist Tutum have not had access to other writings on the Stalinist states by Shachtman and his comrades. We have worked to make some of those writings available in English, outside libraries and archives, and we believe they have much of value.

Our position, as Workers' Liberty, is that the Stalinist states were and are exploitative class societies, aberrant blind-alley developments within the global era of capitalism, and neither "post-capitalist" nor "progressive" compared to capitalism.

We have deliberately avoided committing our organisation as such to a "label", "bureaucratic-collectivist" or "state-capitalist", beyond the basic programmatic statement. In fact, some of us believe that the Stalinist states are best understood as a variant of state capitalism, while others believe that they were and are definitely non-capitalist systems of exploitation.

We note Marksist Tutum's "Critique of the Theory of 'State Capitalism"" (as applied to the USSR); but this critique concerns itself only with Tony Cliff's particular and rather aberrant version of "state capitalism". In our view Cliff's theory is in fact a theory of the USSR as a sort of "progressive bureaucratic collectivism", only packed into "state-capitalist" terminology.

We agree that the bureaucrat-ruled Stalinist USSR could not be a workers' state. Some Marksist Tutum documents seem to claim that a genuine workers' state would be immediately without any bureaucracy. That seems to us over-optimistic. The view put in the 2011 IRMT document "Some notes on the Concept of Socialism" seems more realistic:

[Under workers' rule] "there will be a long process of education and preparation for workers’ management of the economy. Technocrats will remain in place to assist this process but the next generation of workers will be developed to run society" - i.e. not only to control and limit the specialists and officials, but to absorb those layers into the working class.

Supporting the right to self-determination of nations, but not regressive "anti-imperialism". "Sub-imperialism".

From the earliest years of our tendency, when we concerned ourselves with trying to define a working-class politics for Ireland emancipated from the nationalist conventional wisdoms, we have found it important to understand that a division of the world into "imperialist states" and "colonies" (or "semi-colonies", or "neo-colonies") no longer has even the relative validity it had in the era of the great colonial empires.

Many new centres of capitalist accumulation have emerged. "Today the wars provoked by the countries which strive to become imperialist (for example, Turkey, Greece, Iran or Iraq) with the aim of creating their sphere of influence are also unjust wars. The correct attitude towards such wars cannot be to support one's 'own" bourgeoisie against the other’s and to wage a 'national' war in the same front with it" ["Our Basic Positions"].

As Marksist Tutum notes "relations of inequality in the capitalist world are still being presented as a kind of 'neo-colonialism'", i.e. as a product of political overlordship, whereas in fact the inequalities stem from capitalist market relations. "Countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Turkey [are described] as semi-colonies or neo-colonies" when in fact they are "sub-imperialist", "conduct[ing] directly expansionist relations in [their] own regions" (spheres of influence, investments, unequal trade relations, etc.) ["On Sub-imperialism"].

"It is... a caricature of Marxism not to take the demand of the right of nations to self-determination in a clearest way as [the right to] 'political independence, the right to establish a separate state' and think that economic independence can also be achieved by a national liberation struggle" ["Underestimation of Democratic Demands"].

In fact national economic independence is impossible in the modern world, and can be approximated only by regressive and economically-stifling attempts at autarky. If we translate the struggle for the democratic right of nations to self-determination - that is, to form politically independent states - into a struggle for "economic dependence" of countries supposed to be "semi-colonies" because they lack that utopian "economic independence", we end up tailing the nationalism of bourgeoisies which sometimes have their own sub-imperialist ambitions. "In fact in a country which has reached to the level of a regional capitalist power, petty-bourgeois leftism's 'anti-imperialism' and 'national developmentalism' means backing one's own expansionist bourgeoisie".

Marksist Tutum's description of "sub-imperialism" - like the earliest discussions of the concept, by Latin American Marxists like Ruy Mauro Marini - stress the way that "sub-imperialist" states often operate as junior partners of big imperialist states, like Turkey with the USA. It is important today to recognise that some "sub-imperialist" states, Iran for example, may define their sub-imperialist ambitions in conflict with the dominant imperialist power, the USA.

Iran also seeks and gets friendly relations with other large imperialist powers (Russia, China), and it seeks and does deals with the USA. But Iran has its own aims, distinct from those of any bigger power it chooses to ally with or do deals with. Its "sub-imperialism" has its own autonomous dynamic, not reducible to any partnership or deal.

From discussion with the Marksist Tutum comrades, we do not believe that there is a real disagreement on this point.

The importance of democratic demands

Another result of the ideological operation of translating the democratic right of nations to self-determination into a struggle for "economic independence" is that the democratic demand itself is blurred over. Marksist Tutum entitle one of their documents: "Underestimation of Democratic Demands: An erroneous political tendency within Marxist movement still encountered". Seepage from Stalinism, and in many European countries complacency about long-established bourgeois democracy, has made many socialists neglectful of political-democratic demands.

We agree that Lenin's declaration is still relevant: "A proletariat not schooled in the struggle for democracy is incapable of performing an economic revolution...

"The Marxist solution of the problem of democracy is for the proletariat to utilise all democratic institutions and aspirations in its class struggle against the bourgeoisie in order to prepare for its overthrow and assure its own victory...

"We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary programme and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determination of nations, etc."

An internationalist line on the European Union

Marksist Tutum's position on the debate about Turkey joining or not joining the EU is the same as the position which our tendency took on the debate about Britain joining the EU.

Marksist Tutum declares that Marxists cannot be like "the nationalist bourgeois or petty-bourgeois left-wingers, working to turn back the wheel of history". But we do not say "yes" to endorse the projects of the bourgeoisie. "The debate on EU accession [is] essentially a domestic issue of the bourgeoisie. In this discussion, in 'yes' or 'no' format, we do not have to take sides". Our answer is to fight for working-class unity across the borders whatever the details of the negotiations between the bourgeoisies.

Possibly, it seems to us, Marksist Tutum overstates the extent to which a capitalist unification of Europe can "not be realised in any way though it is talked about so much".

Marksist Tutum quotes Trotsky: "A more or less complete economic unification of Europe accomplished from above through an agreement between capitalist governments is a utopia. Along this road matters cannot proceed beyond partial compromises and half measures".

In the first place, this was Trotsky writing in 1928, when the horizons of any prediction could not extend beyond the acutely crisis-torn Europe of the period between the World Wars. He was not speculating about what might happen after a new World War and in a new period of long capitalist upswing.

In that long capitalist upswing, the European governments still fell short of complete economic unification. In a certain sense, the European Union amounts to no more than "half measures". But these are substantial, weighty half-measures, greater than any Trotsky could foresee in 1928.

Marksist Tutum also writes: "If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forward as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working class movement". In fact the capitalist states of Europe have gone a significant way towards creating that "unified, all-European material base".

To recognise that does not imply positively endorsing the European Union, with its unaccountable European Central Bank, its annual cycle of trying to impose neo-liberalism through the "European Semester", its destructive impositions on Greece. It does not imply advising workers in Greece, Portugal, Italy, or Spain to hold back on their struggles in any way for the sake of conciliating the EU leaders and thus reducing the chance of being expelled from the European Union.

It does imply that the stance towards the European Union and the eurozone taken by Syriza and the revolutionary socialists within Syriza (DEA, Kokkino, and others) - "no sacrifice for the euro", but equally no wish voluntarily to quit the euro or the EU - is more in line with working-class interests than the supposedly "anti-capitalist exit from the EU" line of the left activists in Antarsya.

Probably, however, there is no real political difference here between ourselves and Marksist Tutum here.

The development of Turkey

We note with interest Marksist Tutum's analysis of the development of Turkish capitalism, on which we are not qualified to offer an independent opinion.

"The fundamental weakness of the great majority of the left in Turkey is a conception of anti-imperialism without an anti-capitalist content. That is why the left in Turkey considered Kemal’s movement as really anti-imperialist for years, and even today there is sympathy for Kemalism among the left. Another misconception of the left is to equate, more or less, the state capitalism of Kemalism with socialism. So the left movement in general considered as its duty to look after that statism, which nurtured the capitalism in Turkey and provided the native bourgeoisie with capital accumulation" ["A Brief History of Capitalist Development and Working Class Movement in Turkey"]

"Until 1950, banking, big industrial institutions, mining, energy, chemistry, transportation, communication, textile, alcoholic drinks, cigarette (tobacco) etc. were run by the state. The basic and long term aim of this practice of statism and 'state capitalism', was to create the ground for the development of a native capitalist industry and a 'national bourgeois' class, by means of a rapid capital accumulation, through overexploitation of labour inside the nation.

"Only in 1947 did the workers win the right to set-up unions. Even then the right to go on strike and collective bargaining were made illegal. These were achieved only in 1963, 40 years after the proclamation of a Republic... The bourgeois state did not permit any legal socialist parties until 1960. However, the articles that prohibited 'communist propaganda', taken from Mussolini’s fascist penal code in 1936, were not abolished until 1990...

"During the first 40 years of the republic, the native bourgeoisie flourished thanks to the capital accumulation supplied by state capitalism. And it started private industrial investments. The private capitalist industry developed by leaps and bounds in this period. And parallel with this, the working class began to grow rapidly and stir as well.

"In the 60s the whole society showed a tendency to prosper politically and culturally. All sections of the society began to set up its organisations, associations, co-operatives, etc. For the first time for 40 years the prohibited and suppressed leftist books began to be published publicly. The socialist ideas attracted attention of the broad intellectual sections... In 1961 a legal socialist party TIP (Workers Party of Turkey) was founded, which would become the first mass party in the history of the republic. It was founded by trade unionists at first and then joined by socialist intellectuals... Four unions (Maden-Is, Lastik-Is, Basın-Is, Gıda-Is) were expelled from Turk-Is and founded a new confederation, the DISK (Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ Unions) in February 1967. These unions had always been in the forefront of the struggles and organised particularly in the private sector".

Then came the military coup of 12 March 1971. "In this period of extraordinarily oppressive, semi-military regimes, between 1971 and 1974, both the workers’ movement and the developing socialist movement received a harsh blow. The only legal party of the working class, TIP, was closed. The activities of the trade unions that were DISK affiliates, and the youth associations, were banned. This period of the second military dictatorship lasted 3 years and it was the rehearsal of the bourgeoisie for the military fascist regime of September 12, 1980".

Left movements revived after 1974, but on 12 September 1980 came another military coup. "The Constitution and the parliament was abolished, all parties, including also the bourgeois parties, were closed. The party leaders were arrested, the DISK was shut down, unionists were arrested, and all the collective agreements signed by unions were cancelled, and then the workers' wages were frozen..."

This military regime was not broken by an impulse from below, but only gradually softened from above. "Although the bloody military dictatorship of September 12 - which was portrayed as a mild military regime in the West - has begun to dissolve with time, its legacy continues today. For example, the code of laws installed by the military junta is still basically in force, although some amendments to the constitution have been made recently".

In 1983 the military set up a parliamentary regime under the leadership of Turgut Özal. "The Ozalist line (the Turkish version of Thatcherism) that overturned all obstacles to restructuring, has taken many serious steps towards the integration of Turkey to imperialism. One of these steps is the question of membership to the EU, which is still a big problem".

"Problems such as the liquidation of the military tutelage regime and democratisation of Turkish political landscape have become items on the agenda of big capital in connection with its drive for going international and economic exigencies. Likewise, to find a solution to the Kurdish question and Cyprus question has become the agenda of the big capital due to the factors like Turkey’s drive to join the EU or undertake new missions in the Middle East in collaboration with the USA.... The first and second terms of AKP governments seem to constitute a new period in which these problems have started to be solved...

"AKP is not the representative or protector of the working masses but a bourgeois party proper. And a genuine party of big capital voicing the interests of nascent groups of capital thrived on the basis of a wild exploitation of the working class...

"AKP and its milieu are now proud of the process of Turkey’s transformation into a sub-imperialist power ceasing to be a peripheral country. As a matter of fact this process has actually begun in Özal period. The new war of division stretching out from Balkans to the Middle East and Turkic republics that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union coincided with the now sub-imperialist Turkey's plans for expansion..."

We note that Marksist Tutum considers AKP to be not an Islamist party in the sense of the Khomeiny-ites in Iran or Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood, but "a bourgeois party proper". Although Marksist Tutum does not, for example, raise a demand for the end of the ban on Islamic headwear for girls in schools, it does not object to the AKP's lifting of that ban in universities.

It describes the Islamic regime in Iran as "fascist", and writes of the "sometimes even fascist reactionary character" of Islamist movements, but reckons that much "bourgeois secularist" agitation in Turkey about the supposed danger of Turkey becoming "another Iran" is manufactured to serve the interests tied to the old Kemalist-military structures.

Workers' Liberty has had to deal with leftist movements in Britain (and to a lesser extent elsewhere in Europe) supporting Islamist movements which in fact are variants of clerical fascism on the grounds that they are "anti-imperialist". We have learned from the experiences and ideas of Iranian, Iraqi, and Algerian revolutionary Marxists, who are militant about their opposition to political Islam. We know that analysis needs to be concrete, and look forward to discussing and learning from Marksist Tutum's analysis of Turkish politics.

Israel-Palestine

The Markist Tutum document, "The Marxist Approach to the Issue of Palestine", has not been translated into English, and an approximate translation using web services does not make its conclusions clear. It appears to declare that "the Palestinian problem is, in essence, the freedom of the Palestinian people to self-determination... the right to establish an independent Palestinian state. Once this state is established, the independence of the Palestinian people will have solved the national question in Palestine..."

This approach would be in line with the insistence of Marksist Tutum that the democratic right to national self-determination is the right for each nation to secede and have its own independent nation-state, rather than a matter of siding with whatever nations appear to be fighting for "economic independence" against the USA and its allies. It would also be line with Marksist Tutum's critical approach to petty-bourgeois "anti-imperialism".

Spelled out, that would be the same "two states" position as ours: support for the right of the Palestinians to establish their own really independent state alongside Israel, and on that basis support for Arab-Jewish workers' unity in the region.

Many forces on the left, and by no means only in Britain, however, identify the Palestinian national struggle as a symbol of the whole world-wide struggle against US power, and Israel as simultaneously both the military agent of the US in the region and as the decisive influence in shaping US strategy. For them, support for the conquest of Israel and the establishment of Arab rule over its territory is the focus and centre of anti-imperialism the whole world wide.

This stance is misleading. It serves the Palestinians very badly, making them - despite their expressed majority wish for a "two-states" solution - sacrificial victims in a symbolic struggle offering no chance for immediate alleviation of their condition. And its demonisation of Israel leads inexorably towards anti-semitism. As anti-semitism was the "socialism of idiots" in the days of August Bebel, today absolute "anti-Zionism" is the anti-imperialism of idiots.

By "absolute anti-Zionism", we mean not the old Marxist criticism of historic Zionism when it was a project to build a Jewish state, nor internationalist dissent from Israeli-Jewish nationalism, but the prevalent "anti-Zionism" on much of the left today. This is an ideology that, by declaring "Zionism" akin to "imperialism" or "racism", asserts opposition to the very existence of Israel ("Zionist"), and refuses all compromise with all Israeli-Jewish national sentiment or Jewish identification with Israel ("Zionist").

Drawing from traditions

Marx and Engels were always at pains to emphasise what they had learned from and built on in the work of earlier socialists and the great bourgeois political economists. All the more should we, revolutionary Marxists today, be conscious of what we learn from the activists to whose efforts, and despite whose errors, we owe the very existence of a continuing strand of revolutionary Marxist, pro-Bolshevik, politics in opposition to Stalinism.

We ourselves have put it like this: "Beginning as adherents of one of the strands of post-Trotsky Trotskyism - that of James P. Cannon — we have critically re-worked and re-evaluated that tradition, supplementing and amending it on both the level of political ideas and organisational practice... Tradition is never finished so long as an organisation lives; it goes on being lived, reassessed, amended, transmuted, and developed in the life of a political tendency like ours. In sources of ideas and in the examples - negative as well as positive - we learn from, we are both Cannonite and Shachtmanite: in our continuing development we are neither: we continue to evolve our own AWL tradition..."

We understand that the comrades of Marksist Tutum have come to their politics, based on central ideas from Trotsky, without the aid of any substantial pre-existing Trotskyist tradition in Turkey, and by learning from discussions with Trotskyist groups in Europe mostly by way of critique of writers like Mandel and Cliff.

We think it, however, important to remember that even in writers of the stature of Marx and Engels, let alone for us, the element of what is completely new in thought is limited. We are by now highly critical of all the strands of post-Trotsky Trotskyism, but whatever new light is shed by our criticism owes much of its power to what we first learned from those strands.

What Marksist Tutum writes (in "On the Question of International") seems to us to underestimate the degree to which one generation learns from another.

For example, Markist Tutum writes that the Second International had "no continuity" with the first. That is not true. Whole organisations, like the German socialist movement, and leading individuals (Engels, Bebel, Liebknecht, Lafargue, Guesde...) created continuity.

Most of the parties of the Second International collapsed politically by voting for war credits in 1914. But not all did. And in all the major parties that did vote for war credits, there were oppositions which did not fall from the sky but had been shaped and formed by the best elements of the work of the Second International.

"The Third International is not a continuation of the Second International"? Again, hardly true. It is true that "the Third International rested upon the critique of the Second International's experience", but it was a critique carried out by activists trained and educated by the Second International. Every living movement rests on a critique of its past. Where the Third International was able to form strong parties, it was mostly by regrouping elements from the Second International.

Marksist Tutum says: "Compared to Lenin, there are many weak points of Trotsky in the field of organisation. As a matter of fact, Trotsky could not completely free himself from the Menshevik conception of organisation from which he had greatly influenced". We see no evidence for this. Trotsky's personal achievements as a practical organiser were in fact much greater than Lenin's (the October 1917 uprising, the Red Army...), and there is no evidence of him being "Menshevik" after 1917.

This criticism of Trotsky appears to be there to back up the assertion that: "the Fourth International which in the beginning had been tried to be build for the purpose of continuing the tradition of revolutionary internationals has lost its significance with Trotsky’s death".

We agree that the "orthodox" successors of Trotsky started to make grievous and systematic errors within a very short time of his death. But we believe we have significant things to learn even from them; and certainly from the "heterodox" Trotskyists, Shachtman, Draper, and others, who regarded themselves as part of the Fourth International movement until 1948 at least.

Mass workers' parties and bourgeois workers' parties

Marksist Tutum advises "a cautious approach [to] the calls for a mass workers’ party containing all sorts of left-wing tendencies".

It notes that: "Supported by some Trotskyists with the idea that 'workers should found their own party' and brought up by this or that union bureaucrat now and then, mass workers' party is now being brought forward by DISK (The Confederation of Revolutionary Workers Unions). One must keep in mind that although such calls may sound somehow positive under conditions of far-reaching disorganisation and atomization of the working class, they have a negative side in that they blur the conception of the working class party and inherently contain a tendency towards building a bourgeois workers' party. Therefore, a principled and distanced attitude in response to those calls would not weaken the revolutionary working class movement, but prevent the primary tasks from being blurred".

We are not qualified to judge on the specific case in Turkey. It may be that in this polemic Markist Tutum is in part reacting against the schematism of the International Marxist Tendency, centred around Socialist Appeal, with which it formerly had discussions. The IMT proclaims it as a universal iron law that "when [workers] move into action they inevitably express themselves through the traditional mass organizations. Ted Grant developed and always stressed this law which has been confirmed by historical experience". It deduces, for example, in Britain, that all Marxist activity is mere preparation for an inevitable left-wing mass surge into the Labour Party. Almost everywhere in the world it positions its activists as "entrist" groups in whatever approximation it can find to the "traditional mass organisation of the working class" (even if the approximation is hardly an approximation at all, as with the PPP in Pakistan).

Marxists would have good reason also to react against a different schematism now current on the would-be revolutionary socialist left. The main ideologues of the network centred on the NPA in France (Fourth International) propose, again almost as a law, that the next step everywhere is to build "broad left parties to the left of social democracy". This scheme has led them into a role in parties like the Workers' Party in Brazil, and Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, more like advisers than revolutionary polemicists.

All that said, Trotsky's argument in the late 1930s for agitating for a mass workers' party based on the trade unions in the USA seems to us clear and sound.

Where the mass unions (the CIO) were growing and radicalising, Trotsky explained:

"We cannot yet advocate in the unions support for the SWP [the Trotskyist organisation]. Why? Because we are too weak. And we can’t say to the workers: Wait till we become more authoritative, more powerful. We must intervene in the movement as it is…

"I will not say that the labor party is a revolutionary party, but that we will do everything to make it possible. At every meeting I will say: I am a representative of the SWP. I consider it the only revolutionary party. But I am not a sectarian. You are trying now to create a big workers' party. I will help you but I propose that you consider a program for this party. I make such and such propositions. I begin with this..."

Like any other tactical argument, it can made into a "frozen template" (as Marksist Tutum put it). We should remember that Trotsky opposed the "labour party" slogan for the USA earlier in the 1930s, and changed his mind on the basis of changed realities, not of considering his previous approach fundamentally mistaken.

We should remember that while Marxists in Britain in the late 19th century combined agitation for the mass trade unions to create an independent labour party with building their own relatively small organisations, and were (we believe) right to do so, the revolutionary Marxists in Russia and in Italy around the same period, in the early 1900s, opposed calls for the creation of British-type labour parties as threats to the leading role in the working class which clearly-socialist parties could already aspire to in those countries.

As there are situations in which Trotsky's argument from the USA in the late 1930s is inapplicable, so also there are situations where it is applicable.

We believe that the revolutionary socialists in Greece, DEA and Kokkino, who participate in Syriza and who support the drive to build Syriza into a mass workers' party at the same time as arguing for a revolutionary socialist policy within it, are right.

We argued that revolutionary socialists in South Africa in the 1980s should fight for the creation of a mass workers' party based on the new non-racial trade unions, and for a revolutionary socialist policy within that movement.

Marksist Tutum suggests that revolutionary socialists in Brazil were wrong to participate in the movement to create the Workers' Party in Brazil in 1980. We don't think so. The fact that the Workers' Party ended up dominated by weak reformists does not prove them wrong. If the revolutionary socialists are defeated in a struggle, it does not prove that the struggle was hopeless from the start.

Even if we could know in advance that the revolutionary socialist forces within the Workers' Party were doomed to be a minority, the effort to rally that minority, educate and shape it in struggle against the reformist, and maximise its forces would still be worthwhile. The only decisive argument against participation in a relatively fresh and fluid mass formation like the Workers' Party would be if doing so imposed limits on the revolutionary socialists which stopped them advocating and explaining their own basic ideas, and having their own basic identity; and that was not the case.

Marksist Tutum writes: "If the independent work of building the revolutionary organisation is given primary importance and the tactic of entrism is subjugated to this, then the revolutionary attitude will not be compromised. But the tactic of entrism employed in a way that would mean that the revolutionary organisation would somehow take shape via political work within a mass workers' party is a totally erroneous and opportunist approach..."

The basic idea here is right - that revolutionary socialist clarity is indispensable, and cannot be replaced by clever tactics. But it is not put clearly. The French Communist Party was formed by winning the majority in a French Socialist Party revitalised by an influx and radicalisation after the end of World War One. The mass German Communist Party was formed by winning the majority in an Independent Social Democratic Party radicalised by events and new activists. On a smaller scale, all the revolutionary socialist groups in Britain owed their growth in the 1960s beyond the stage of tiny discussion circles to intervention in the Labour Party and its youth movement, even though that Labour Party was in its majority remained very solidly a bourgeois workers' party.

Relatively open, fluid, mass workers' parties may "inherently contain a tendency towards building a bourgeois workers' party", but if they are workers' parties and relatively fluid, they contain contrary tendencies too. If times are conservative and of working-class setbacks, then they may well move to the right and consolidate as conservative organisations; but there is no iron law that they will do so at all times. It is very unlikely that mass revolutionary parties will be built just by one-by-one recruitment of activists. Their building will involve a series of splits and fusions, broadenings-out and narrowing-downs.

Trotsky on the revolutionary party

In "On the Question of International", Marksist Tutum declares:

"Compared to Lenin, there are many weak points of Trotsky in the field of organisation. As a matter of fact, Trotsky could not completely free himself from the Menshevik conception of organisation..."

The point is not further discussed in that document, and it is not clear whether the writer sees it as connected to similar points made elsewhere:

"The Trotskyist movement in general fails to follow a proletarian revolutionary line on organisational questions both on a national and international level..."

"There are some problems in Trotsky's political course in the context of his conception of party...". In this connection, the Marksist Tutum document raises doubts about Trotsky's advocacy of a labour party based on the unions in the United States in the later 1930s.

We do not know whether there is a real difference of opinion here between ourselves and Marksist Tutum, or just a difference of emphasis. We believe that Trotsky after 1917 was the best and clearest advocate of Marxist and Bolshevik approaches on revolutionary organisation, and we will explain why.

Many would-be Trotskyist groups today have, in our view, wrong ideas of what a revolutionary organisation should be, and how to build it. Trotsky is not to blame for that.

Many of the "Mandelite" currents use the slogan "new epoch, new programme, new party". To attempt to analyse what is new is good. But their approach means that they put a general question-mark over the revolutionary Marxist tradition, and aim to build "new" organisations around a "new" programme which does not yet exist. As Trotsky put it: "A new contribution to strategy will grow out of an endeavour to improve and fructify the practice of war, and not at all out of the mere urge to say ‘something new’. This is like someone who, because he appreciates original people, sets himself the task of becoming an original person: nothing would come of that, of course, except the most pathetic monkey-tricks".

In practice it has meant advocating or joining "broad" parties (Rifondazione, for example) and acting in them more like advisers than revolutionary polemicists.

The International Marxist Tendency, around Socialist Appeal in Britain, has a scheme in which the building of a revolutionary organisation is by dogma a faction of this or that "traditional mass party", and its future triumph is by dogma the elevation of the supposed Marxist faction to leadership in that "traditional mass party" in a future time of crisis.

The SWP in Britain and the organisations linked to it see the building of the party primarily as a matter of gaining organisational weight. They judge political tactics and positions by whether they may help their organisation to grow, not by the long-term interests of the working class. That makes them opportunist. It also makes the regime of their organisations undemocratic. They see the ability of the leadership to make sharp turns for organisational advantage as more important than discussion of whether political positions are right or wrong.

Then there are many would-be Trotskyist organisations which operate as sects, organised around a leadership group which tolerates no other factions.

We believe, with Plekhanov, that "the sole purpose and the direct and sacred duty of the Socialists is the promotion of the growth of the class consciousness of the proletariat", and therefore political clarity is paramount. We aim, in Trotsky's words, "to base our program on the logic of the class struggle".

Since the logic of the class struggle can be investigated only by activity and discussion, democracy is a political necessity for a revolutionary organisation.

It is democracy regulated by a practical purpose: deciding on and carrying through clear-cut politics, and learning from experience. Unlike with discussion circles, debates are organised to reach a clear decision and mobilise the organisation to carry it through collectively and in a disciplined way. The time for debate before a decision is made should vary according to the issue. Some issues are and should be dealt with by an immediate decision by an elected leading committee; others may require long and wide discussion before a decision.

After the decision, a minority which disagrees should go slow for a while on the debate. It should wait for experience to provide new data on which to re-raise the debate. But it should not be obliged to disband, or to cease organising. It can and should continue to discuss its distinctive ideas so long as it does that in a way which does not damage the collective mobilisation to carry through the majority decision.

Democracy includes the right of opposition groups inside the revolutionary organisation to organise at all times, and not just in prescribed pre-conference periods. It includes the right and in fact the duty of individual activists always to be honest about their ideas. They should cooperate with the majority line in public activity, but they should not pretend to agree with it where they don't. They should not hide their true views. As a general rule debates should be carried in our public press as well as internally, though the organisation as a whole, and its committees, must have the right to decide how and when the debates will appear in the press, sometimes to decide that a particular debate must be kept internal, and to structure internal debates for clarity.

We believe our ideas are in line with the arguments and the practice of Lenin and Trotsky.

Trotsky supported the Mensheviks for a few months after the 1903 split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, and stood outside the two factions in the following years, until 1917. In 1917 he concluded he had been wrong and came over to the Bolsheviks. After that, as Lenin said, "there was no better Bolshevik".

Called by other tasks, Lenin never wrote a mature summary of his ideas on revolutionary organisation. "What Is To Be Done?" (1902) contains many important ideas, but is a summary of the common views of the Iskra editorial board of 1902, both future Bolsheviks and future Mensheviks. Lenin wrote it as an appeal for urgent and decisive activity to create a party in Russia modelled on the German Social Democratic Party and its strategy codified at the Erfurt Congress of 1891. Not until much later did he see that in reapplying the ideas of German Social Democracy in the different circumstances of Russia, he had also changed and sharpened them substantially.

The nearest Lenin came to writing a summary of his views on party organisation after the collapse of the Second International was "Left Wing Communism". But that was primarily a polemic on issues such as work in trade unions and parliament, the need for flexible tactics rather than dogmatic permanent revolutionary offensive, and the British Labour Party.

With Lenin and Trotsky busy on other tasks, Zinoviev wrote the theses on party organisation for the Second Congress of the Communist International. Zinoviev gave a narrowly organisational and technical account. The Stalinists - and Zinoviev himself, in the critical years 1923-25 - were able to instill in non-Russian Communist Parties the idea that "Bolshevisation" meant mechanical discipline and a ban on factional debate.

It fell to Trotsky to give the best explanations of what Bolshevism in party-building really was. He did that in the documents and speeches collected in "The First Five Years of the Communist International"; in "The New Course"; in "Lessons of October"; and in "Strategy and Tactics in the Imperialist Epoch".

In the 1930s Trotsky had to tackle the problem of building revolutionary organisations from small nuclei, in hostile conditions, and amid political tumult.

Some writers criticise the Trotskyist groups of the 1930s for their instability and fractiousness. Our comrades of that era surely made many mistakes. Trotsky noted that "our own sections inherited some Comintern venom": habits of impatience and administrative concepts which made for unnecessary splits. Activists forged in the heroic mould of the Bolsheviks were scarce; sectarian quibblers could cut large figures.

Trotsky was the most influential figure in the movement. Should he be blamed for the faults? He initiated tactics of regroupment and of entry into social-democratic parties which the groups available often lacked the political strength and sinew to carry through well.

However, the groups which proceeded with their organisation-building in a steady, routine, cautious way, regardless of the upheavals around them - like the De Leonites, say - were unresponsive. They were not more Bolshevik. Initiative and tactical enterprise are risky, but they are a mainspring without which a small revolutionary group can achieve little.

The history of the Bolshevik faction in the years of reaction between 1907 and 1912 was troubled, too. It was bound to be.

Isaac Deutscher, in "The Prophet Armed", expounds the difference between the newspaper "Pravda" which Trotsky edited from Vienna from 1908 to 1913 and the Bolshevik press in a way which sums up Trotsky's pre-Bolshevik errors on party-building.

"On the whole, Pravda was not one of Trotsky's great journalistic ventures. He intended to address himself to 'plain workers' rather than to politically-minded party men, and to 'serve not to lead' his readers. Pravda's plain language and the fact that it preached the unity of the party secured to it a certain popularity but no lasting political influence.

"Those who state the case for a faction or group usually involve themselves in more or less complicated argument and address the upper and medium layers of their movement rather than the rank and file. Those who say, on the other hand, that, regardless of any differences, the party ought to close its ranks have, as Trotsky had, a simple case, easy to explain and sure of appeal.

"But more often than not this appeal is superficial. Their opponents who win the cadres of a party for their more involved arguments are likely eventually to obtain the hearing of the rank and file as well; the cadres carry their argument, in simplified form, deeper down.

"Trotsky's calls for the solidarity of all socialists were for the moment applauded by many - even the Bolsheviks in Petersburg reprinted his Pravda. But the same people who now applauded the call were eventually to disregard it, to follow the one or the other faction, and to leave the preacher of unity isolated.

"Apart from this, there was in Trotsky's popular posture, in his emphasis on plain talk and his promise to 'serve not to lead', more than a touch of demagogy, for the politician, especially the revolutionary, best serves those who listen to him by leading them".

Deutscher puts it well. His source for those ideas which he puts so well will have been articles by Trotsky from the 1930s, notably "What Is A Mass Paper?"

We should not take tactics proposed by Trotsky in the 1930s as giving us a fixed menu of tactical templates, so that with every new situation there is only a choice about which template to apply. We must think with our own heads, in situations which are always new. But Trotsky's writings will be the richest resource for us to educate ourselves so that we can use our own heads to good purpose.

Notes on documents of the Iranian Revolutionary Marxists' Tendency

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.