Trotskyism after the collapse of Stalinism: an open letter to Ernest Mandel

Submitted by martin on 18 November, 2009 - 10:37 Author: Sean Matgamna

Comrade Ernest Mandel: Certain of your critics — James P Cannon reasonably in the 1950s, the degenerate sectarians (Healy, Lambert) ridiculously in the 1960s — named the “Fourth International” current you lead “Pabloism”.

The truth, however, is that you, comrade Mandel, are the representative leader of post-Trotsky “Trotskyism”. If it is to be given a special “ism”, then it must be “Mandelism”.

Others played their part, of course — Deutscher, Cannon, Pablo, Hansen, Healy, etc. Some of them, at certain points along the road, played a more important role than you. Deutscher played the role of chief pioneer, though he was not part of your tendency. ,

But they grew old, dropped away, died, changed their minds. Pablo has been a sort of “Shachtmanite” for the last 20 years; Deutscher’s last book, “The Unfinished Revolution”, indicated that he might have gone in the same direction had he lived longer.

You, comrade Mandel, have survived at the centre, been through all the zig-zags; you, more than anyone else, have performed the typical “ideological” work of post-Trotsky “Trotskyism” — rationalising “the historic process”.

It is for that reason that I write you this open letter. I am not, alas, one of the younger generation writing to one of the “old guard”; I write as one who came in my teens to the “Trotskyism” which you and others had reshaped at the end of the 1940s, a decade earlier. At that time your “Trotskyism” seemed to be the only extant form of revolutionary Leninist politics.

The end of the "rise of world revolution”

The collapse of the USSR shows conclusively that your version of “Trotskyism” was radically wrong, false, and disorienting. It is time to face up to that, comrade Mandel — high time, if the cadres of “Trotskyism” are now to be preserved as revolutionaries. If they do not face up to the facts, they will either drop out or take refuge in stark unreason: utterly defeated in the ideological struggle with the bourgeoisie, they will take refuge in fantasies and delusions of the sort made so familiar to us by the Lambertists, Healyites, Posadists and other breakaways from your tendency.

You, comrade Mandel, have personified the characteristic mixture of post-Trotsky “Trotskyism”: recognition of currents like Titoism, Castroism and Maoism as “revolutionary” and adaptation to them, while attempting to explain your current political preconceptions and perspectives in terms of the politics of Lenin and Trotsky.

For nearly half a century of the “colonial revolution”, Stalinists made “revolutions’’ which were against imperialism, and sometimes against the bourgeoisie, but always against the working class. You identified this development with the “World Revolution” of the proletariat. You played the role in terms of rationalising this “process’’ that Karl Kautsky had played two generations earlier in rationalising from the point of view of a hollow “orthodox Marxism” what the leaders of the German social democracy and trade unions did.

You were, indeed, despite your revolutionary intentions, worse than Kautsky. He rationalised the activities of a bureaucratised labour movement: you have rationalised and made excuses for various totalitarian Stalinist machines. Is that slander? No: what about your “critical” support for the Maoists in the twenty years after their victory in 1949? Your line on Cuba now?

You and your friends, like Kautsky in the Second International, only more grimly, have operated by redefining the terms of socialism and of class struggle. You have proceeded by tortuous “interpretation” and “reinterpretation” of the ideas of the Trotskyist movement.

Others — your sectarian splinters and “heretics”, Healy and Lambert and Posadas, and their splinters and “heretics” — have followed after you, adding their own absurdities and lunacies.

The result is an archipelago of “Trotskyist” organisations, a large part of which is inhabited by people who are in politics little short of lunatics. The first steps to creating this political world were taken by you and your friends at the end of the 1940s, when against all previous Marxist and Trotskyist reason you redefined such forces as Maoism as part of the workers’ movement, and identified their state power with the working-class revolution.

How Trotskyism was redefined in the 1940s

When, on 20 August 1940, Ramon Mercader smashed Trotsky’s skull with an ice-pick, Trotsky left behind him a weak and tiny movement. Trotsky’s movement held to the original perspectives and programme of the communist International — to the goal of winning working-class power in the advanced capitalist countries, where alone socialism could be built. Trotsky’s programme could only be fought for effectively by a mass movement; his perspectives depended for their realisation on the living activity of millions of revolutionary workers. But the millions-strong world-wide army of “communism” was gripped by the delusion that Stalinism was communism, and by the Stalinist bureaucracy, which used lies, corruption. and secret police gangsterism to keep its hold.

When, at the end of World War Two, a great wave of working-class revolt swept Europe, it was controlled or repressed by the Stalinist apparatus. In Eastern Europe and China systems like that of the USSR were created; in the West the Stalinist movement helped the bourgeoisies, Stalin’s then allies, rebuild their states — in France and Italy for example.

Stalinism expanded into new areas, covering one third of the world. Capitalism, which had seemed almost on its last legs in 1940, entered a post-war boom. The mass labour movements of the advanced countries settled in to live with capitalism. Capitalism experienced such lightning-flash revolts as the seizure of the factories in France by nine million workers in May 1968, but easily survived them.

"Loyal criticism” of Tito and Mao

The majority of the forces making-up post-Trotsky Trotskyism followed you, comrade Mandel, in seeing the Stalinist states as degenerated or deformed “workers’ states”, in advance of and superior to capitalism. Russia, Eastern Europe, and China were, you believed, “post-capitalist”, in transition between capitalism and socialism.

“The worid revolution” was continuing to “develop”, so you said, comrade Mandel, for now, as a Stalinist movement. You redefined “Trotskyism” and gutted its ideas so as to present the expansion of Stalinism and the creation of totalitarian states in large parts of world as the socialist revolution. You accepted on their own terms such systems as Mao’s China and Tito’s Yugoslavia, and adopted the role of loya1 critics.

It was 20 years after Mao’s victory before you and your friends supported a working-class programme for China, of a new “political” revolution!

For a large part of the Stalinist world — societies, China for instance, in some respects worse than the post-Stalin USSR, and certainly immensely more backward — you adopted not Trotsky’s politics for the USSR. but the programme of loyal critics as purveyed by the Brandlerite “Right Communists” in the 1930s. You thus. by eclectically amalgamating “Trotskyist” and “Brandlerite” politics, rendered “Trotskyism” unstable and utterly incoherent.

Trotskyism thus, in 1950, seemed to be the embodiment of an idea whose time had come — and somehow passed it by — a movement whose programme, or the fundamentals of it, had been made reality by its enemies, and grotesquely twisted into horrible shapes in the process. The majority of the movement led by you, comrade Mandel, adapted itself to Stalinism, especially to the new Stalinist formations like Maoism and Castroism.

Of course it was never uncritical adaptation — those who ceased to be critical ceased to be even nominally Trotskyist — never a surrender of the idea that the Stalinist states had to be democratised and transformed. But they did adopt the role of ideological satellites of the Stalinist states which embodied, by their existence in “transition” from capitalism to socialism, an expanding post-capitalist world revolution.

Trotsky’s Trotskyism and yours

Strictly speaking this was not “Trotskyism”. At the time of his death Trotsky laid down different guidelines from those used by the majority of the Trotskyists in the late 1940s. He was then close to identifying the Stalinist states as a new form of class society. and said explicitly that if Stalinist society should prove solid enough to survive and expand — as in fact it did — then there was no alternative but to recognise that it had already, in the 1930s, become a new class system (see the articles The USSR in War and Once More on the Defence of the USSR, in In Defence of Marxism). If Trotsky had lived and stuck to what he was saying in 1939-40, he would not have done what the mainstream “Trotskyists” did in the late ‘40s and after.

Trotsky would not have been a post-war “Trotskyist”. Trotsky’s heroic rearguard struggle against the Stalinist counter-revolution and the corruption of the world Communist movement — that was the historic “Trotskyism”. Post-Trotsky Trotskyism is something else again.

But that is now beside the point. For 43 or 44 years, from the late 1940s, the majority of the Trotskyist movement led, more than by anyone else and for longer than anyone else, by you, comrade Mandel, did not follow the course outlined by Trotsky. You identified Stalinism of various sorts with the “world revolution”, and redefined the Stalinist states as progressive. Automatically you took sides with the Stalinist bloc in its imperialist competition with capitalist imperialism.

Stalinism was not post-capitalist!

And now, 50 years after Trotsky’s death, Stalinism has collapsed in Europe. It is revealed as nearer to being pre-capitalist than post-capitalist. Far from “defending and extending, in its own distorted way, the gains of the Russian Revolution”, Stalinism must be judged historically to have had no effect on socialism and working-class emancipation but that of subverting and destroying labour movements, enslaving working classes.

Many, including many former Trotskyists, take these facts to mean that Trotskyism is an idea whose time, though it never quite came, is now, nonetheless, irrevocably gone. When the Trotskyist mainstream, in the late 1940s, turned towards a more “positive” account of Stalinism, there was a mass exodus from its ranks. Something similar is likely to happen as the implications for “post-Trotsky Trotskyism” of the fall of Stalinism percolate through now.

When Trotskyist groups such as your British comrades, Socialist Outlook, are reduced to arguing for the historically progressive merits of defunct Stalinism in terms of the social welfare it allegedly gave to workers, not only do they abandon the whole Marxist notion of the working class as the self-acting subject of history in favour of seeing the working class as the object of imaginarily benign bureaucratic dictators, they surrender the whole position of revolutionary socialism. If welfare reforms are the measure, then, comrade Mandel, the great success story of “socialism” is not Russia but Sweden!

And what now when the entire Stalinist experience is plainly revealed by its collapse as a historical blind alley? Those “Trotskyists” who, like you, identitied Stalinism with the “first”, “immediate” stage of the “world revolution” are shown to have been utterly disoriented. More: you have been shown as having been, for half a century, politically hegemonised by the key ideas of Stalin’s “socialism in one country”! No, I am not just paradox-mongering.

“Socialism in one country"

The Trotskyist objection to “socialism in one country” was merely one expression of the root Marxist idea that you cannot get socialism except as the product of advanced capitalism. Lenin and the Bolsheviks never denied this truth of Marxian socialism; it is what distinguishes scientific socialism from all others. Against the Mensheviks, they argued only that the workers could take power in a backward country: the spread of the revolution to the advanced countries in a reasonably short time would then compensate for the effects of backwardness. The Marxist balance would be restored on a world scale.

The idea which has dominated your tendency for over 40 years, that Stalinism in the USSR and the most backward parts of Asia could evolve and develop to socialism, implied an acceptance of the key ideas of “socialism in one country” and a denial of Trotsky’s Trotskyism. Even if “one country” could not develop socialism from backwardness, in competition with and paralleling world capitalism, a block of Stalinist countries could do that: in principle that was accepting the approach of “socialism in one country”.

Your version of “Trotskyist” politics is now collapsing as utterly as Stalinism outside China has collapsed; but it is not Trotskyism that collapses, but one of its counterfeits!Comrade Mandel, you now preside over the .mortal political crisis of the post-Trotsky “Trotskyism” you have shaped over so many decades. You have been there all through, comrade Mandel, there at the birth and here at the funeral.

In the later ‘40s, as a young man, you saw the old Trotskyism go into a profound crisis and waste away. That Trotskyism was based on the idea that — for the working class — Stalinism was irredeemably and unconditionally counter-revolutionary, and in its political regime akin to, or (as Trotsky put it in the “Transitional Programme”, worse than) fascism. It held to the elementary Marxist principle that the socialist revolution would of necessity have to progress to the advanced countries and be the work of the working class.

You saw that movement come to the point of collapse when faced with the disappointment of its hopes of workers’ revolution in Europe and with the survival and expansion of Stalinism in the USSR, Eastern Europe, and Asia. Now you see what you built collapse along with the Stalinism you reluctantly redefined then as the “deformed” but continuing world revolution.

The future of Trotskyism

Has Trotskyism a future? For ourselves, we continue to believe that the future of working-class politics lies with Trotsky, and with a cleansed and regenerate Trotskyism.

Trotskyism, which took over and fought for the ideas of the early Communist International, was no arbitrary or personal creation. That International itself inherited the progressive work and root ideas of the previously existing socialist movement.

The ideas of Trotskyism are the continuation and summation of the whole history of the socialist working-class movement.

Not even the terrible decades of errors and crass political mistakes committed by the official post-Trotsky “Trotskyist” movement which you have led, and over the remnants of which you now preside, can destroy that great tradition or discredit the programme on which history has stamped the name “Trotskyism’’.

In a post-Stalinist capitalist world wracked by slumps and economic dislocation, by famines and by peripheral wars, these Marxist ideas — and new ideas developed out of them — are not only relevant, they are irreplaceable for the working class.

The AWL exists to put into practice and develop these ideas. We fight to rearm the labour movement politically, so that it can finally settle accounts with capitalism and begin to build a socialist world.

We appeal to you, comrade Mandel, and to other Trotskyists who believe that the now collapsed or collapsing Stalinist states betrayed the hope of socialist progress, to stop identifying Trotskyism with the patently false ideas grafted on to it after Trotsky’s death. Post-Trotsky “Trotskyism” is dead? Go back to Trotsky!

We appeal to all those who call themselves Trotskyists to unite with us in common class struggle action and to join with us in an honest and open discussion about the way forward for Trotskyism.

The collapse of Stalinism and the present dislocations of capitalism offer Trotskyism the chance of a new beginning.

If those who call themselves Trotskyists are worthy of the great socialist fighter who died in August 1940, then Trotskyism, far from being a footnote in socialist history and an incidental casualty in the final coliapse of bureaucratic Stalinism, will be able to shape the future.

Right now we need unity in action and honest dialogue — free from false-pride and from charlatan pretensions — about our differences.

October 1992