Problems of Trotskyist history

Submitted by Matthew on 28 August, 2013 - 4:21

Problems of Trotskyist history: introduction to Shachtman's Where is the petty-bourgeois opposition?

George Santanyana’s aphorism, “Those who do not learn from history are likely to repeat it”, is not less true for having become a cliché. And those who do not know their own history cannot learn from it.

Take the history of the Trotskyist movement — that is, of organised revolutionary Marxism for most of the 20th century. To an enormous extent the received history of that movement is not “history” but the all-too-often mendacious, and always tendentious, folklore generated by competing sects over many decades.

The folklore infects much of what academic history there is on the movement, for instance, Robert Alexander’s enormous volume on “International Trotskyism”. His accounts of Trotskyism in the two countries I know something about, because I have been a participant in the Trotskyist movements there, the UK and Ireland, are full of errors. His account of early Irish Trotskyism is downright nonsensical, a mere rehash of a short document written from very selective memory and factional fantasy by a Mandelite, Rainer Lysaght.

Of course all history is, as someone said, “a tale agreed upon”. The “tale” may be constructed from documents, archaeological digging in files of papers and magazines, the memoirs of participants, personal memory. It may be very “solid”, built on “facts” as hard as such facts can be. It is nonetheless a “story”, a construction, a narrative, agreed upon.

The angle, the perspective, varies from period to period, time to time. And of course from class to class.

The unfolding of history itself, for those living inside it, creates a perpetual shifting of perspective, and produces a “permanent revolution” in historiography. On one level history is an ever-changing palimpsest.

The history of the revolutionary socialist — Trotskyist — movement involves all the difficulties of any history, and then some of its own. “The documents” are all tendentious, selective, designed to prove or sustain a political point, justify a political position, or damn, discredit, and disqualify an opponent or competing organisation. Examination of one’s own mistakes, including previous ignorance, is regarded as an organisational weakness.

This is true of smaller things, and also of the whole history of organisations, or of socialism and communism across the 20th century.

The level of scrupulousness and of aspiration to truthfulness varies enormously from document to document, from time to time, from ogranisation to organisation, from writer to writer. In the passions generated by controversy, by the strong emotional desire for something to be just so, or to have been just so, something not far off the intellectual morality of medieval monks can develop — for whom it was doing God’s work for the scribe to invent appropriate incidents, interpolate into old texts whatever would strengthen a dogma or to enhance a saint.

Lying and wilful and tendentious misconstruction are commonplace, not only in the once voluminous literature of a very degenerate organisation like the old Workers’ Revolutionary Party of Gerry Healy, and not only in the crudest form.

There are a myriad forms of selectiveness, each tendency making its own, and remaking it, eliminating and emphasising, glorifying and ignoring.

Bigger than all those things, however, is the radical shifts and transformations in the Trotskisant organisations which are then glossed over with hindsight. In the 1930s the Trotskyists saw Russia as a degenerating, ever degenerating, product of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky believe it could not survive. He wrote at the end that its nationalised property was only “potentially” progressive — on condition that the working class overthrow the bureaucracy in a new revolution.

By contrast with Trotsky, there was a political current known by the name “Brandlerite” who advocated reforms in the USSR but not a new revolution.

Stalinist Russia survived the war, and took over many European countries. Stalinists made revolutions in a sizeable number of other countries, most momentously China. A decade after Trotsky’s death, the reconstructed “Fourth International” had adopted something more like the reformist views of the Brandlerites for Stalinist states like China and Yugoslavia, and looked to the USSR, under the Stalinist bureaucracy, to lead a great world-wide revolution against capitalism in the course of the World War 3 which they saw as inevitable. The Trotskyists had become “Brandlerites”.

In the 1960s the British SWP prided itself on not being Leninist, which it explained as not being like the Healy organisation. In the 1970s it was transformed into a “Leninist” organisation and into an organisation more like the Healyites of the 1960s than its old self.

Take the following as an example of how much of the history of the Trotskyist movement has been shaped and mis-shaped.

In 1944 some leaders of the British Trotskyist organisation, the RCP, were jailed for their involvement in helping a strike by engineering workers. There was a big outcry against the jailing, and they served a mere few days in prison. This incident has been enshrined in the folklorist histories because a number of different tendencies (SP, SWP, the Healy organisation...) trace their roots to the RCP.

In 1959 Brian Behan, a leading militant building worker in London, and at that time “chairman” of the Healy organisation, the SLL, was given six weeks in jail for his activities in the building industry. Who remembers that? Where is it recorded outside the files of old newspapers? It isn’t.

Why? Shortly after his jailing, Behan was expelled by the SLL and thereafter demonised. He became an anarcho-syndicalist, and soon after that dropped out of politics. (I don’t know if he ever “returned”). He became a historical “un-person”.

The “Shachtmanites”, in the handed-down history of the revolutionary movement after the death of Trotsky, have in my opinion suffered worst from these processes. That is very important because in the 1940s and 50s they continued and elaborated an alternative strain of Trotskyism from that of the Cannon tendency, to which most Trotskyists today owe their essential politics on many things.

The task of understanding and learning the history of the revolutionary movement is a necessary and enormously important part of politically regenerating and reorganising a revolutionary movement for our own time.

As with Lenin’s work on State and Revolution, the refurbishing of revolutionary Marxism requires that we dig down into our own roots.

The 50% of Trotskyists in the USA who in 1940 split with Trotsky — four months before his assassination — rejected Trotsky’s position that “unconditional defence” of the USSR against imperialism required siding with Russia in the Finnish-Russian war of November 1939 to March 1940.

In the polemics of the time, Trotsky conceded that Russia was “imperialist”, one of the different sorts of imperialism in history (Again and Once More). The first big political shift in the Trotskyist movement towards that view had been Trotsky’s mid-1939 shift to advocating independence for Ukraine, and implicitly for the other oppressed nations who formed a majority of the USSR’s population, oppressed by the Great Russians. There were Trotskyists at the time — the Oehlerites — who denounced Trotsky for thereby abandoning “defence of the USSR”.

Trotsky in September 1939, in The USSR in War, accepted for the first time the theoretical possibility that the USSR, exactly as it was, might be re-conceptualised as a new form of exploitative society. He said it was too soon, on the eve of the decisive test of the viability or otherwise of the USSR. In the world war that had then started, the Stalinist bureaucracy could not survive, and it would be overthrown either by capitalism or by a new working-class revolution.

When voices in his own factional camp accused him of “revisionism”, he responded that a theory of Stalinist Russia as “bureaucratic collectivist” (neither bourgeois nor proletarian) was not, per se, “revisionist”. (Again and Once More).

Two basic currents emerged from the multi-faceted and in-flux politics of Trotsky at the time of his death — the SWP-USA (Cannon) and the Workers’ Party/ ISL (Shachtman).

The literature and the politics of the Cannon tendency are what is today, and has been for more than half a century, “Trotskyism”. The Cannonites’ account of the Shachtmanites constituted much of their historical reputation, though PeteDrucker’s biography of Shachtman, and our own collection of Workers’ Party text have shifted this quite a bit in the last two decades.

A very tendentious selection of texts by Trotsky, put together by Cannon and his comrades in 1942 under the title In Defence of Marxism, has frozen the image of the Shachtmanites as given in those polemical texts. It cut off generations of Trotskyists from the ideas of “the other Trotskyists” — and from many ideas of Trotsky himself, major aspects of whose thinking were continued and developed by the WP/ISL, and jettisoned by the Cannonite “orthodox Trotskyists”.

The texts here demonstrate how important that was. Max Shachtman’s picture of the USSR and his premonition of the development of the Russian imperialism that would be the second power in the world for the next half-century was soon vindicated by developments.

The document Where is the petty-bourgeois opposition? is a refutation of charges against and criticisms of Max Shachtman and his comrades that have been kept in circulation by the factionalism-blinded official historians of post-Trotsky Trotskyism. Part of it has been available for a couple of years on the Marxist Internet Archive. Otherwise it has been buried in archives for 70 years.

The item on the split in the Mensheviks, which paralleled that of the Trotskyists, is interesting because Trotsky, on his own account, took from some Mensheviks a false and fantastic picture of Polish workers rallying to support the “Red” Army invaders. Some of Trotsky’s comments at that time would form major pillars of subsequent “orthodox Trotskyism”.

The reclamation of a true picture of our own history is one of the most important tasks of revolutionary Marxists today — an essential element in reconstituting a viable revolutionary socialism.

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