Trotsky and 21st century socialism

Submitted by Anon on 25 August, 2007 - 12:38 Author: Sean Matgamna

“I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence and enjoy it to the full.”
Leon Trotsky, April 1940

The October Revolution showed for all time what the working class is capable of achieving, what working-class socialists, democratically organised and clear-headed, can do. It proved that the idea of working-class socialism is no delusion.

But the real October has been buried for decades, first under the foundation stones of the autocratic Stalinist system and now under the ruins of Stalinism. Together with other bankrupt Stalinist stock, the bourgeois victors have taken over Stalinism’s great lie — one of the most poisonous lies of the lie-prolific twentieth century — that Stalinism was Bolshevism. Stalinism as a force in the working-class movement is dead, but in the war of ideas, the ghost of Stalin serves the bourgeoisie, insisting still that Stalinism was socialism and, therefore, socialism is dead. That lie is central to their ideological war on socialism. They need it.

Socialism now and in the period ahead has a better chance of revival and growth than at any time in 75 years. Why? Socialism is rooted in capitalism itself, in the critique of capitalism from the point of view of its exploited victims, the working class. Marxist socialism is the conscious expression of the underlying unconscious processes of history. The bourgeois claim to have killed socialism is the claim to have frozen history. No-one can do that. All the contradictions of capital remain. The bourgeoisie must abolish capitalism and the working class struggle before it can eliminate socialism. It can’t. Class struggle is the law of life of capitalist society, because capitalism cannot do without the proletariat. The laws of capitalism uncovered by Marx have not been suspended or superseded. The exploitation of labour by capital — the basic cell of capitalist society — generates class struggle and self-renewing labour movements. The class struggle goes on. Nothing but working-class victory and the end of capitalism will eradicate it.
Of course the bourgeoisie have won the long cold war with their Stalinist rival. But capital has, in Stalinism, merely seen off a backward, inestimably more primitive competitor. Their ideological victory over “socialism” is an imaginary victory.

Capitalism repeatedly revolutionises technology and the organisation of production. Thereby it changes the proletariat. It disrupts working-class organisations by technological change and by blows in the class struggle. But the labour movement too revives, reorganises, redefines and politically remakes itself. The handloom weavers and others who made the first mass labour movement, Chartism, in the 1830s and 40s were no longer a social force when the modern labour movement was created. The working class — renewed, changed, augmented — was.

The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, the book published by this magazine/Phoenix Press is designed to re-establish what the real relationship of unfalsified socialism and historical Bolshevism was to Stalinism, and therefore what little credence is to be placed on the capitalist version of the old Stalinist myths and lies — right now, the lie that because Stalinism was socialism, socialism died with the collapse of the USSR.

The book is also a relentless criticism of the “Trotskyist” tradition that for decades has, in a hundred permutations, been the most widespread variant of revolutionary socialism. It is criticism from within that current. A large part of the long introduction is a systematic criticism of Trotsky’s thought on the USSR: but it is Trotskyist criticism of Leon Trotsky, and it is, we hope, loyal criticism in the spirit of Trotsky himself. The publishers of Workers’ Liberty are politically proud to take Trotsky’s name. However, we refuse to mistake piety for political rigour or mimicry and mummery for fidelity to Trotsky. Trotsky mimicked no-one, and he had the contempt of a reasoning human being for all mummery and mumbo-jumbo.

Trotsky wrote incomparably acute analysis and descriptions of Stalinist Russian society. He elaborated a programme of working-class revolution to overthrow Stalinism. But in the overall conceptualisation of the USSR he made grievous mistakes. As The Fate of the Russian Revolution demonstrates in detail, Trotsky’s own analytical and descriptive writings on the USSR are often in flat and glaring contradiction with his theoretical framework. The idea that the USSR in the thirties was any sort of workers’ state, or that nationalised property was ipso facto progressive was culpable nonesense. In the light of history this is indisputable. These ideas disorientated the authentic revolutionaries — the “Trotskyists” — for decades after Trotsky’s death.

The serious “Trotskyists” today, those who prepare the future renewal of a mass “Leninist” and “Trotskyist” movement, are those who critically apply themselves to cleansing, repairing and renewing the ideological fabric with the help of which a mass revolutionary socialist movement will be rebuilt. That demands a critical, and self-critical, appraisal of the history of socialism.

Trotsky once asked rhetorically: What do we do when the “good old books” fail to give the necessary answers or give wrong answers? Try to manage with one’s own head! There is really no alternative. Even the most primitive dogmatist who looks to old quotations from Marx or Lenin or Trotsky for concrete “answers” for today is engaged in thinking, however preposterously.

At his death Trotsky was on the point of breaking with and correcting his errors on the USSR. The evidence for that statement is massive. It is in The Fate of the Russian Revolution. After his death, Trotsky’s mistakes on the USSR were frozen in the work of pious but uncomprehending or irresponsible “disciples” into something inimical to his whole spirit. Much of Trotsky — the real Trotsky — was thereby lost. The Fate of the Russian Revolution is a contribution to restoring the real Trotsky.

Trotsky was both the hero of the workers’ victory in October 1917 and the living embodiment of the Russian workers’ resistance to the Stalinist counter-revolution. He was the greatest man of socialism of the twentieth century and one of the greatest heroes of the struggle for human liberation in recorded history. He is not only the Trotsky but also the Spartacus and the Blanqui of the twentieth century. Trotsky personified a whole epoch of proletarian culture, tradition, experience, and unbreakable belief in the rational, humanist and libertarian traditions of Marxism.

Trotsky’s name today symbolises and personifies revolutionary communism itself — the elemental drive for freedom of the slaves of capitalist society. But Trotsky is more than a name.

Trotsky’s writings embody the lessons of great working-class struggles — struggles that ended in the unprecedented victory of October 1917, and of struggles that ended in catastrophic defeat. Trotsky’s writings constitute our best link with the Russian Revolution and the early Communist International: here Trotsky is the Buonorotti of the Russian Revolution — the passer on of great tradition, the link between the past of defeat and annihilation and future renewal on a higher level. His theoretical mistakes on the USSR aside, Trotsky’s writings are an irreplaceable part of the political, theoretical and moral resources of extant socialism, and of future socialism. The twenty-first century will be Trotsky’s century.

Capitalism has not ceased to be irrational and savagely inhuman, nor have market mechanisms ceased to be blind and wasteful, just because the monstrous Stalinist experiment in totalitarian “state” socialism failed. Wage slavery and exploitation have not ceased to be the heart and root of capitalism. Millions of poor children die needlessly under this system every year. In the United States, the richest capitalist country in the world, Third World slum conditions exist side by side with obscene opulence in its leading cities. In Latin America unemployment runs at 40% in many cities. Cocaine gangsters rule huge areas. Malnutrition and even starvation are widespread. That Stalinism’s “authoritarian state socialism” failed does not mean that socialism has ceased to be the answer to capitalism!

Stalinism was part of the pre-history humankind must grow beyond. So, still, is capitalism! Such democracy as we have in the West owes its existence to decades and centuries of struggle by the working people. Democracy in capitalism is limited, imperfect, and frequently not very stable. Real democracy is mass self-rule by the producers, dominated neither by a bureaucratic state monopoly nor by the economic rule of the multi-millionaires and their officials. It is socialist democracy.

Socialism is the fight to organise the working class as a clear and conscious force, a class for itself, to break bourgeois state power and abolish wage slavery. As Karl Marx and Frederick Engels expressed it in the Communist Manifesto of 1848: “To raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy... to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e, of the proletariat organised as the ruling class... In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Socialism will revive as a mass force. The question is what sort of socialism? How free will it be from the defects that have rendered “socialism” a nullity or worse for most of the twentieth century — since the crushing of the Bolshevik Revolution in the 20s? That depends to a considerable extent on the socialists themselves, on what they do. That in turn depends greatly on how we come to terms with the twentieth century experience of socialism and on our capacity to learn the lessons of our own history. Trotsky’s writings are tremendously important here. Armed with Marxist ideas, a small minority can do marvellous things.

In Britain in the 1880s less than 200 socialist pioneers set to work to win over the working class, to expand the labour movement and transform it into a socialist workers’ movement. Their inadequacies need not detain us here. They did great work of lasting value. Work like that will be done again: and we are already on a very much higher level, with a mass trade union movement. Here tradition is very important.

Tradition is our collective memory. The Marxists are the memory of the working class. The historical memory of a class is worked and reworked, learned from or forgotten, lost and regained, relearned and reinterpreted, and put to work as part of the political capital of the movement. Therefore, much depends on the socialists themselves. Not “history”, or “capitalist crisis”, nor any mechanical agency will do it, but living, conscious, determined, remembering people, responding to the iniquities of capitalism.

The revolutionary movement is the historical memory of the working class. Trotsky’s writings are now a great part of that memory — the memory of the revolutionary socialist movement of the early twentieth century that made the October Revolution, but met defeat and virtual annihilation at the hands of Stalinism and Fascism. Trotsky has been dead 58 years. Yet Trotsky’s cause lives and Trotsky’s spirit is there whenever workers take on capital, wherever there is class war. The twenty-first century will be Trotsky’s century.

But Trotsky’s legacy will of necessity be assimilated critically, and reworked in the light of experience and new realities — just as Trotsky himself reworked and developed the heritage of his teachers — on the theory of permanent revolution, for example. Trotsky can only be reappropriated critically. The Fate of the Russian Revolution is a contribution to the battle of ideas and the battle for unfalsified Marxism. The lost texts of critical Marxism develop Trotsky’s real ideas in the real directions in which Trotsky was going at the time Stalin’s assassin struck him down. Trotsky, rescued from the posthumous captivity in which for so long he has been imprisoned by well-meaning disciples, offers guidance, tradition and an incomparable example. He cannot think for socialists today, but he can help us learn to think better for ourselves. Not misplaced piety — loyal Marxist criticism!

It is in this spirit and to contribute to that work that people who think of themselves as Trotsky’s people have subjected Trotsky’s writings on the USSR and some of Trotsky’s political legacy to severe criticism.

The truth of history is on the side of socialism. History is unending struggle — economic, political and ideological. All around the globe, wherever capitalism has created a modern economy it has raised up a militant working class — in South Korea and Indonesia, for example. Even when most successful capitalism only creates its own gravediggers. The paths of capitalist glory “lead but to the grave!” Class war goes on.

What socialists do in this war can be decisive. What they are able to do is affected by how they see the world, how they come to terms with the past, how well they resist the pressure of the conservative anti-socialist classes — in short, how they fare in the battle of ideas and fight the proletarian class war.

Trotsky said it best: “To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s programme on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives — these are the rules”.