A Letter About Trotskyism

As a political current, Trotskyism was defined by the Russian Revolution. Trotskyism was founded in a defence of the politics of the Bolshevik Party in the early years of the Russian Revolution against the direction taken by the Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship in the USSR.

There’s a lot that’s still valid in these politics. The most obvious is opposition to Stalinism, which inflicted immense damage on the socialist movement in the 20th century. It wasn’t just the number of deaths that Stalinist regimes were responsible for. It was also the disastrous political direction Stalinism gave to millions of sincere anti-capitalist activists and the false association of socialism with vile regimes and the parties led by their admirers.

The problem with Trotskyism’s attitude to these regimes wasn’t that it denounced them. It was that most Trotskyists thought that these bureaucratic dictatorships were, in spite of their horrific features, better than capitalism and deserved at least some support. Trotskyists spent too much time disputing the nature of societies like the former USSR, Cuba and North Korea. But regardless of how you characterize them, it’s still vital to recognize they  were appalling bureaucratic dictatorships that needed revolutionary change.

Daniel Bensaid was one of the most intelligent Trotskyist political thinkers of recent times. He argued that the “original defining characteristics of Trotskyism” were 1) advocacy of the theory of permanent revolution against that of socialism in one country, 2) advocacy of the united front tactic and transitional demands, 3) opposition to Stalinism and 4) support for the building of an international organization of revolutionary socialist parties united around these politics. Let’s look at each of these.

The theory of permanent (meaning uninterrupted) revolution is still relevant. There were problems with Trotsky’s original version and the world has changed in important ways since Trotsky wrote. But what’s still valid is a strategy of transforming the Global South through uninterrupted revolutions. This means revolutions that begin with struggles for democratic rights, agrarian reform and against imperialism and progress to workers and peasants taking power and aiding their counterparts in other countries to do the same.

This is an alternative to strategies that divide revolutions into stages: first, a stage in which changes help to develop capitalism (such as the “Andean-Amazonian capitalism” advocated by Bolivia’s Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera), and eventually a later stage when it will be possible to challenge capitalism. In Bolivia, South Africa and elsewhere we can see how left-wing parties with two-stage strategies have put brakes on mass movements with revolutionary potential.

When socialists pursue the united front tactic, they try to unite working-class forces in immediate struggles for reforms and to repel ruling-class attacks while preserving the political independence of socialists from reformist leaderships which want to demobilize mass struggles in favour of trying to win parliamentary elections. 

This tactic was developed when there were large revolutionary organizations and mass reformist parties, which rarely exist today.  But the basic idea is still sound. It’s a much better guide to action than two other common approaches: first, the popular front, which seeks to include so-called “progressive” ruling-class forces in alliances (a strategy that has contributed to many defeats because those forces are opposed to not just anti-capitalist change but the kind of mass militancy that’s most effective in winning defensive struggles). The second is the “ultra-left” sectarian approach that’s against uniting in action with forces that aren’t already revolutionary or anti-capitalist.

Transitional demands are more complicated. They are political demands that build a bridge between immediate concerns and the struggle for socialism. Unfortunately, this has led many Trotskyists to believe they could mobilize workers for revolution by raising the correct transitional demand. This comes from Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional Program, in which Trotsky argued capitalism was in its “death agony” and that the crisis of humanity could be “reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.” To emphasize specific demands rather than what people do, and how they organize, is a mistake. The idea of working in today’s struggles with transitional politics – politics that aim to engage with the struggle where it’s at in order to try to raise it to a higher level — is more useful than a focus on transitional demands.

Trotskyism’s greatest weaknesses have been exposed by its efforts to build revolutionary parties. In Russia it made a huge difference that the Bolshevik Party had developed as an independent organization of revolutionary workers before the revolution broke out. This allowed them to  “compete successfully for the support of Russian workers against reformist political currents” in 1917, as Charlie Post put it recently. In most other countries there was no “independent revolutionary workers organization” before “the revolutionary wave of 1918-1923. As a result, revolutionaries in the west were at a distinct disadvantage in their political competition with social-democracy.”

This is an important historical lesson to absorb. But it doesn’t justify the approach Trotskyists have generally taken to building socialist organizations.

Trotskyist groups have suffered from negative features like out of touch “rhetoric, manipulative attitude to the mass movement, operation through ‘front’ organizations, exaggerated pretensions to Leninism and Bolshevism, and unpleasant internal regimes,” as British Trotskyist Al Richardson once wrote. He suggested that these problems could be traced back to the role in Trotskyism’s earliest years of people who had been influenced by the Bolshevik Gregory Zinoviev, such as the US socialist James Cannon. I think Richardson was right, although people never influenced by Zinoviev have also shown themselves quite capable of the same bad practices.

When it comes to building socialist organizations, the heart of the problem is that Trotskyists have usually acted as if recruiting more people to small groups organized using what we can call the micro-party model was the road to creating organizations of revolutionary workers with mass influence. When they haven’t built groups on micro-party lines, it’s usually because they’ve felt they weren’t yet ready to do so, not because they saw a problem with the approach.

US socialist Hal Draper argued that the method of the micro-party is “the method of ‘as if’: let us act as if we were a mass party already (to a miniscular degree, naturally, in accordance with our resources).” The idea is to build “a miniaturized version of the revolutionary party-to-be… a microscopic edition or model of the mass party that does not yet exist.” But “there is a fundamental fallacy in the notion that the road of miniaturization (aping a mass party in miniature) is the road to a mass revolutionary party. Science proves that the scale on which a living organism exists cannot be arbitrarily changed… Ants can lift 200 times their own weight, but a six foot ant could not lift 20 tons even if it could exist in some monstrous fashion. In organizational life too, this is true: If you try to miniaturize a mass party, you do not get a mass party in miniature, but only a monster.”

All small radical groups will inevitably have all sorts of defects, but adopting the micro-party model makes them worse. It creates strong pressures for sectarianism (acting in ways that put the group’s interests ahead of what’s best for the working class). Even when applied in a non-delusional way, it treats the small socialist group as more important than it is in reality.

The problems of Trotskyism go deeper than the weaknesses I’ve mentioned so far. Its origins in defending the politics of Bolshevism (as understood by Trotsky) against Stalinism have led many Trotskyists to cling to inherited orthodoxy rather than try to renew revolutionary socialism for a changing world. This has made it hard even for unorthodox Trotskyists to recognize the political weaknesses of Bolshevism itself, even at its best (Bolshevism had an inconsistent commitment to the socialist guiding principle that the working class must emancipate itself in order to transform society in ways that begin to do away with the social conditions that give rise to alienation, class exploitation and state power).

Moreover, Trotskyism’s “original defining characteristics” date back to some key debates in the revolutionary wing of the workers’ movement in the 1920s. We are in a very different era now. Those past debates provide some important, relevant lessons for today, as I’ve tried to suggest. But these are not today’s key debates. There have been other crucial debates since then — for example, about the significance of feminism and queer liberation for a politics of human emancipation. Today’s key debates among radicals include questions like these: how to respond to the global ecological crisis? what’s the relationship between anti-racism and anti-capitalism? how important are working-class movements, and how should we try to change them? what’s the significance of the struggles of indigenous peoples? is mass radicalism possible in countries like Canada? do we need political organizations as well as unions and community-based groups? if so, what kind and how can they be built?

We need a socialism that learns from the past but is defined in relation to key issues and debates of the present. The best of Trotskyism can contribute to such a socialism for our times, but a socialism for our times must go beyond the best Trotskyism.

In solidarity,
David Camfield