Introduction: many Trotskyisms

Submitted by AWL on 8 July, 2010 - 11:04 Author: Sean Matgamna

More or less everywhere in the world now there are groups of avowed revolutionary socialists — usually, but not invariably, small or very small groups — who are “Trotskyist” or Trotskisant.

They trace their political genealogy back to Leon Trotsky’s politics in the 1920s and 30s, and before that to the Bolshevik party of Lenin and Trotsky which led the Russian workers to power in 1917.

The extant Trotskyist groups vary greatly in their politics and theoretical positions. In Britain, the SWP-UK, which allied for a decade with Islamic clerical fascism, and AWL, which fights clerical fascism, Islamic or Catholic, and which denounced the SWP‘s alliance and the politics that went with it, are both “Trotskyist”.

So is the Socialist Party (formerly the Militant Tendency), which in the mid 1980s led the Liverpool labour movement to a catastrophic defeat by the Tories and the Kinnock Labour Party leadership of the time.

So is the very tiny Workers’ Revolutionary Party, which still publishes a daily paper with money supplied by Arab reactionaries.

And so on. Outside Britain, the situation is pretty much the same, varying only in details.

There are many “Trotskyisms”. “Trotskyism”, with any clearly defined political meaning, is now only a historical category.

Yet that historical category, and its accessible written record, are of immense importance to socialism now. For a period beginning, say, with the emergence of Bolshevism in 1903-5 and ending with the death of Trotsky in 1940, or maybe a decade after, there survives a large body of theory and workaday literature in which the political and practical questions and issues of Russia, Europe, and other areas of the world were defined, analysed, debated about, and fought over.

Those documents deal with the issues thrown up during the great mid-20th century world crisis of the capitalist system and its partial breakdown. They deal with the taking of power by the Russian workers in 1917, and the work of politically and organisationally preparing the forces which led the Russian workers to power.

That was a period in which history was intensified and events seemed to speed up. Issues were focused and clarified under the immense pressure of catastrophic events.

In terms of Marxist politics, it was a great laboratory, a crucible, a site of heightened and expedited political awareness. Events passed quick judgement on the work of the revolutionaries — on their politics and polemics.

Though the great Russian and international revolutionary Marxist movement of that time have disappeared as completely as a continent that has sunk under the sea, leaving only atolls and reefs and small islands above the waterline, the records of that experience are preserved in the writings of the revolutionaries of the time.

Socialists now and in the future will have to re-learn much that the old revolutionaries knew and took for granted.

No old texts can substitute for the living experience of the existing working class and its aspirant socialist vanguard. But old texts can help us to better understand issues now by making it possible to see the present in its real historical perspective. They offer us immense economies of effort in learning to be adequate Marxists and revolutionaries.

The aphorism of the American philosopher George Santayana —”Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — has become a cliché, but is no less true for that.

Either the history of our movement is known and understood, or we will be doomed to repeat its mistakes again and again. The arsenal of Marxism offers us irreplaceable help in avoiding the mistakes of the past.

One aspect of the decline of the Marxist movement in the last period is the loss of knowledge of our real history and of its real lessons.

In this issue of Workers’ Liberty we print two key documents about the split of the Fourth International (the Trotskyist movement) into two fundamental political tendencies 70 years ago, on the eve of the assassination of Leon Trotsky in August 1940. That split was the beginning of the emergence of two fundamental tendencies in Trotskyism in the years after Trotsky’s death.

One of the documents, Max Shachtman’s speech to the New York membership of the Socialist Workers’ Party USA in October 1939, has remained buried for 70 years.

The opposing speech at that New York meeting, by James P Cannon, has been printed and reprinted in many thousands of copies and a number of languages, as part of Cannon’s book about that 1939-40 split, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party. So has an arbitrary and factional selection of Trotsky’s political writings of that time, in the book In Defence of Marxism.

Those two volumes constitute the Book of Genesis of post-Trotsky “orthodox” Trotskyism. But the arguments of Cannon’s opponents have not, until now, been available.

If our resources allowed it, we would reprint alongside Shachtman’s documents the contemporary writings of Trotsky and Cannon. That is impossible, but below we give the web addresses where readers can find those texts online.

This issue of Workers’ Liberty is the first in a number of projected issues dealing with the emergence of the two basic trends of post-Trotsky Trotskyism, and also with the 1953 split in the “orthodox” Trotskyist camp, which on one side was an incoherent and weak attempt to reopen the issues of 1939-40 and shaping years after that.


In Defence of Marxism.

The Struggle for a Proletarian Party

Introduction to The Fate of the Russian Revolution