“Why does everything come down to Trotsky — what Trotsky said, what he did…?” A comment not long ago from a renegade Marxist, one of those free-spirited, “clever”, emancipated ex-Marxists who thought up the “Euston Manifesto”. The truth of course is that nothing at all “comes down” to Trotsky — or Marx, or Lenin, or Rosa Luxemburg, or anyone else.
For Marxists, what everything “comes down to” is reality, the analysis of reality, the working out of what socialists should do and say in order to change our reality of an exploitative class society and move things in the direction of workers’ power and socialism. Necessarily it has to be our own working out: we think for ourselves even if all we think is that a Lenin or a Trotsky or a Marx said all that has to be said for our time as for their own.
It is only in relation to that, that anything “comes down to” Marx or any of the other thinkers who, addressing the social realities of their own time, did what we try to do — understand social reality and work out what to do about it. They offer models of how to do that, examples in action of their method of doing it, and the results of their work in analysing antecedent realities out of which our realities have developed.
They offer, too, accounts and analyses of the experience of the working class and attempts, which may or may not still, for us, be valid, to codify that experience into general precepts.
One of the best accounts of Marxism is Lenin's “State and Revolution”, written when he was forced into hiding in the middle of 1917. It is both demonstration and exposition of what living Marxism is.
The book is an argument and a demonstration that the leaders of the pre-1914 socialist movement had falsified the ideas of Marx and Engels on the state. It is an attempt by analysis of texts to re-establish what they really thought. An exercise in arid scholasticism? Scholasticism, it is not. It is the opposite of that.
Lenin analyses the old texts to discern and establish what they really said. He traces the development of their opinions on the state towards the conclusions they drew from the experience of the Paris Commune, in 1871, namely, that the revolutionary working class could not simply take over the old bureaucratic state machine — the civil service, the army — and make it serve them: the workers would, following the example of the Communards, have to break it up and replace it by a “Commune state”, self-administering working class democracy, without a permanent state bureaucracy; a self-armed people instead of a standing army.
Lenin relates the views of Marx and Engels, and the way their views evolved from point to point, to the experience that shaped those views. He assesses and judges their views in the light of those experiences and uses their method to shed light on his own situation.
For instance, Marx had thought that there could be a peaceful revolution in Britain and America — and perhaps, Holland, about which he felt he knew too little to judge. To the view put forward by Karl Kautsky, effectively, that that settled it — Marx thought there could and therefore there could be a peaceful revolution in those countries. Lenin counter-poses Marx’s method, his way of arriving at that conclusion, to Marx’s conclusion, by way of examinging what had happened in those countries since.
Why, he asks, did they think what they did then? Britain and the USA then, Marx had observed, had nothing like the typical state bureaucracy of the European countries, had small armies, and no great military-bureaucratic apparatus of state. He asks: is that still true? From the facts, he establishes, from the changes in the British and US states since Marx, that it is not.
Nobody who takes this seriously, applying Lenin’s way of approaching the work of Marx and Engels to Lenin himself, could be a consistent “Leninist” and also a “Leninolator” (or any other sort of “olator”). Consistent Lenin-olatry would carry its own antidote and thereby be its own negation!
Within Marxism there is forever a tension between the empirical/scientific/sociological basis and the extrapolations and pre-figurations spun from them, which, of course, when they seem desirable, come to encompass our strong hopes and feelings, and, when we devote ourselves to fighting to win them, our lives.
At which point might an extrapolation or projection need to be revised in the light of subsequent experience? At which point might key ideas about the nature of social reality have to be abandoned? At which point might some or all extrapolations need to be jettisoned? What role would jettisoning some or all of the basic ideas, or the extrapolations, play in the contemporary class struggle?
These are questions in the realm of judgment, opinion, argument: there is no one answer at a given time; people of equally good faith can arrive at different answers; and the times continue to change…
Eduard Bernstein concluded in the late 1890s that, though the labour movement could win reforms, the whole notion of proletarian revolution, of a socialist negating of capitalism, had been invalidated by experience: “the movement”, he summed up his conclusions, "is everything, the goal nothing".
Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, George Plekhavov, and many others, rejected that conclusion. They argued that Bernstein worked with a vulgar notion of evolution: real evolution necessarily includes revolutionary breaks; Bernstein based himself on too limited an experience; that he was making an invalid induction…
In the Europe of two decades later, and greatly more so three decades later, as Bernstein was reaching the end of his life and Hitler was on the eve of taking control of Germany, Bernstein's thesis was unsustainable. Sixty years later it seemed valid again.
The point is that real Marxism is rooted in the necessary evolution of capitalist society. What is “Marxist” at a given time can only be established by argument and, ultimately, by the test of experience.
There is, however, more than that for us in the written work of Trotsky and Lenin and the Russian Marxists. In terms of history, the Russian working class, its movement and its Marxists went from the great “spontaneous” strikes of the 1890s to the creation of the first soviet — workers’ council — in 1905, to semi-legal trade unions after the 1905 revolution was defeated, to the revolutions of 1917, to the civil war in which much of the old working class was killed or dispersed as a class, to the Stalinist totalitarian system that would, after 1927, hold it in a frozen grip for more than six decades. The work of the Russian Marxists in the first two decades of the 20th century, social analysis, theoretical disputes, battles about "perspectives", is enormously rich. And within a comparatively short time, history in the 1917 revolution delivered its verdict — its pro-tem verdict — on these disputes. Thus we can know what it all came down to.
The rear-guard Bolsheviks, fighting the Stalinist anti-working class revolution, from 1922-23 to Trotsky’s death in 1940, and afterwards, continued that Marxism — that experience and tradition.
Trotsky’s work in his last 20 years, dealt with working class and socialist experience in tremendous and tremendously concentrated historical events — the rise of Stalinism, of Nazism, the Spanish revolution and the civil war, the French general strike of the mid-30s, the British general strike of 1926. These twenty years were a great crucible of class struggle. We can only appropriate that experience now — make it part of our own movement — by way of writings such as Trotsky’s about the events in that 20 year crucible. The tradition thus created is tremendously important.
The working class in successive defeats can lose its historical memory. It loses awareness it once had, is thrown back to political conditions it had once gone far beyond … Generations change, traditions die. Layers of the British working class, which fought tremendous strikes in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s will now have to learn again how to organise a strike…
Writings such as these of Trotsky are rich historical time-capsules, by way of which we can learn by precept what we would otherwise only learn from raw experience, at a great cost, which would include defeats.
It is not less true for having become a bit of a cliché that those who do not learn from history are likely to wind up repeating it. The writings of a Lenin, a Trotsky, a Luxenburg cannot think for us, tell us concretely about their relevance or lack of it for situations and problems we face. That can only be done by way of the analysis and conclusions we make for ourselves. But we can learn to do that, or to do it better, by studying the works of a Trotsky, a Lenin.