Returning to the sources

Submitted by Matthew on 24 February, 2016 - 10:34 Author: Andrew Coates

Andrew Coates reviews The Two Trotskyisms confront Stalinism, edited by Sean Matgamna. Part one of the review was printed in Solidarity 394.

The debates in this volume are about the armed foreign policy of the USSR. But behind this is the issue of the nature of that regime.

Some might consider that arguments about the character of the former Soviet Union — whether it was a workers’ state, a degenerated workers’ state, state capitalist, bureaucratic collectivist, a “new class society” — resemble discussion on the Trinity. If some Trotskyists have sunk into religious veneration for Trotsky a more common fault is scholasticism — “proof” of any view by appeal to the authority of quotations from the Old Man, Marx, Engels and Lenin. But when it comes to working out what was wrong with Stalinism, the economic and social framework of the former Soviet Bloc, the several decades of Trotskyist reflection and debate, orthodox and heterodox play an essential part in the effort to develop a socialist alternative today.

Differing stands on these issues, examining Trotsky’s and many other views, is explored more widely in Marcel van der Linden’s Western Marxism and the Soviet Union (2007). In this context the clash between the “Orthodox” and the “Heterodox” Trotskyists is only one of many, more or less intense, debates. The “heterodox” Trotskyists produced evidence of Stalinist totalitarianism sprung to life and ready for – defensive – expansion in the first years of the Second World War. On the wider theory of bureaucratic collectivism judgements are mixed. Were these forms a “freak” of history, as Shachtman sometimes argued?

The idea that these societies were, as Linden summarises, arranged in a sequence from capitalism to something new, whatever we label it, also seems to have outlived its use. But the USSR’s statist planning and mobilisation of ‘labour armies’, including forced labour in the Gulag, its “socialist primitive accumulation” may be considered, as Martin Thomas argues, not as a leap out of the capitalist world at all. It was “a compressed, intensified version of the use of direct extra-economic force’ in the ‘historic genesis of capitalist production’”. In other words, the mode of production was not really transformed by the Bolshevik Revolution at all. If this was an oddity, normality eventually reasserted itself.1

Stalinist imperialism is not just a bone of contention or an historical issue. New Left circles influenced by Isaac Deutscher agued that the USSR was a progressive international force through its support for national liberation movements. There are those who consider that Russian President Putin and a host of other non-Western powers represent today a kind of necessary “counter-balance” to the US-led Imperium. This might be considered, recalling Alex Callinicos’ words, as a theory designed to be adapted to the needs of local lefts, desperate to discover some “resistance” to the American hegemon.

The Two Trotskyisms presents a view of the history of the Trotskyist movement. Any account on this topic, by the rules of the genre, has to be controversial. Matgamma succeeds in demonstrating that there is a value in looking at the critical stand of the “Heterodox” towards the SWP leadership, and the orthodoxy associated with Trotsky. Yet it is a mental wrench for the reviewer, politically brought up on British and other European left-debates, including Trotskyist ones, to enter the political and cultural world of the 1940s American SWP. This was Trotskyism with a capital T. This is a group that George Orwell described in 1945 as having “a fairly large number of adherents” with a “petty fuehrer of its own” with an “essentially negative inspiration.” European left culture, while influenced by a few organisations of the same stripe, had and has much broader sources. From social democrats, Communist thinkers, democratic socialists, autonomists and anarchists, Western Marxists, non-Trotskyist Leninists, not to mention activists and writers from the trade unions.

Some of these would challenge Matgamna’s claim to ownership of the Revolution. Others would find the assertion empty. International It is harder still to associate “orthodoxy” with the main Fourth International, figures such as Ernest Mandel or Michel Rapitis, charged with apostasy by the same James P Cannon in the 1953-4 split in the Fourth International, accused of straying from Trotskyism for their support for Third-World movements of national liberation, not to mention the 1970s controversies on guerrilla warfare, to today’s discussion about ecology and globalisation.

The claim that the various ‘orthodox’ French Trotskyist parties led by Pierre Boussel (‘Lambert’) indulged Stalinism ignores their intimate association with the American funded post-War break-away from the Communist led trade union federation, the CGT, Force Ouvriùre, not to mention their actual writings — virulently hostile — on the Eastern Bloc.2

There are other ways of describing the divisions within Trotskyism. Bensaïd called the Trotskyists’ splintering into mutually antagonistic tendencies, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the “scattering of the tribes”. At the Second Congress of the Fourth International in 1948 the Workers Party and Shachtman were still present. In a protest at the lack of clarity and democracy during the conference he united with one faction, represented by Cornelius Castoriadis. The Franco-Greek theorist’s subsequent history went beyond heterodoxy — designating the USSR as “bureaucratic capitalist” — to rejection in the name of workers’ self-management of all the main tenets of Trotskyism, except Revolution. This indicates that post-War there was not one group, The Heterodox, but a nebula of “Heterodoxies”.3

French Trotskyism is significant in the events leading up these divisions. During the German occupation the policy of “revolutionary defeatism” was put into practice, in different ways by its already dispersed forces. Trotskyist histories of the period glorify efforts to convince German soldiers to unite with French working class and other internationalist actions. They tend to look with suspicion on any “nationalist” support for the Resistance — that is when a small number of Trotskyists joined the armed resistance.4

Yves Craipeau — an early “bureaucratic collectivist” — recounts a key episode in that history. When the Allied forces landed in Normandy, his faction, probably the largest, published in its underground paper, La VĂ©ritĂ©, a headline, “ils se valent” — they’re the same. (June 1944) It went on to read, “En rĂ©alitĂ©, la libĂ©ration de Roosevelt vaut tout autant que le socialisme de Hitler’. (In reality the liberation of Rosevelt means as much as the socialism of Hitler.)

The long-term effects of this declaration, which Craipeau opposed, were such that those hostile to Trotskyism would continue to cite it for decades – though not apparently Trotskyist historians. The divisions within the Greek Trotskyists were even more severe. One wing, already in conflict with the other, refused the “defence” of the USSR and spent the War violently hostile to the other. The Stalinists physically liquidated some of them, though estimates give the total at 50 (both groups together) not the 300 – Matgamna asserts.5

Post-war the French Trotskyists briefly united in the Parti Communsite Internationaliste (PCI). But one can easily imagine that given this background during the conflict Trotskyists would disunite again, on a basis with deeper roots than the US SWP’s ideological disputes. The majority view, set out much later by Ernest Mandel was that they related to the electoral strength of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) and, one hopes, with some due modesty, they recognised the legacy of the Communists’ role in the Resistance. Part of the “scattering of the tribes”, was a result of that effort.

Castoriadis – marked by the Greek experience — refused any compromise with the Communist Party. Some groups were equally hostile to the PCF, the Socialists and, to Trotskyists who could see any merit in calls for joint activity. Yves Craipeau left the Fourth International. Like the title of Peter Jenkins’s pamphlet he thought that Trotskyism had got “lost”. Craipeau gauged that there were forces on the left, outside the PCF and the Socialist SFIO, who could form an independent left party. The long story of efforts to create one, up to the radical “new left” democratic socialist Parti Socialiste UnifiĂ© (PSU), in which Craipeau played a significant part, indicate yet another direction, “post” Trotskyist, that “heterodoxy” could take.6

Is the study of Trotskyist heterodoxy the best way to look at this complex past? Perhaps there is another way to return to the sources of the left. Pierre BrouĂ©, once an Orthodox activist in the French Lambertists who became respected historian of the movement, left this statement in his Memoirs. Reflecting on the fall of the Soviet Bloc and the faults of the organisation which expelled him, he wrote in conclusion, “We must return to our sources, become again the ‘party of communists’ which only marks itself out from the mass of people with whom we live by our devotion, our continuous thinking, our openness to the world, our capacity to struggle, our will to clarify, to help the masses see things through their own eyes.”7

By its democratic and serious thought on some of the most serious issues of the 20th century The Two Trotskyisms has contributed to these generous aims.


(1) Shachtman and his critics’ views are covered in: Chapter 3 From Stalin’s ‘Great Leap Forwards’ to the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (1929–41) Marcel van der Linden Western Marxism and the Soviet Union. Brill 2007. “Three Traditions? Marxism and the USSR”. Martin Thomas. Historical Materialism. Vol.14.3. 2006.

(2) On the Lambertists see the hostile account, in great, if contentious, detail: Les Trotskistes. Christophe Nick. Fayrad. 2002.

(3) Strategies of Resistance and ‘Who are the Trotskyists?’ Daniel BensaĂŻd. Resistance Books. 2009. Max Shachtman. The Congress of the Fourth International. An Analysis of the Bankruptcy of “Orthodox Trotskyism” (October 1948) Marxist Internet Archive. Chapter 6. From the Second World Congress to the 1953 Split. The Long March of the Trotskyists, Pierre Frank. Marxist Internet Archive. Francois Dosse. Castoriadis Une Vie. La DĂ©couverte. 2014.

(4) Ian H. Birchall. “With the Masses, Against the Stream. French Trotskyism in the Second World War” Revolutionary History, Vol.1, No.4, Winter 1988-89. See also: Ernest Mandel. A Rebel’s Dream Deferred. Jan Willem Stuje. Verso. 2009. The Meaning of the Second World War. Ernest Mandel. Verso. 1986.

(5) See Pages 174 – 175. Yves Craipeau. MĂ©moires d’un dinosaure trotskyste. L’harmattan. 1999. For an apologist’s account of Trotskyism in the war, which ignores, amongst other incidents, this headline see: Pages 164–5. Revolutionary Marxism Today. Ernest Mandel. NLB. 1975. This total and the tangled history of Greek Trotskyism: Alexis Hen. “Les trotskystes grecs pendant la seconde guerre Mondiale” Cahiers balkaniques 38-39 (2011)

(6) Further material on Craipeau in English: The Third Camp in France. Workers’ Liberty 2#2. This, a small but important part of the majority view on Stalinism was given by Ernest Germain (Mandel) Stalinism – How to Understand it and How to Fight it. April 1947. Marxist Internet Archive. On the wider revolutionary expectations in France in this period amongst intellectuals – a significant constituency for French Trotskyists — see this useful study: La RĂ©volution rĂȘvĂ©e. Pour une historie des intellectuels et des oeuvres rĂ©volutionnaires. 1944 – 1956. Michel Surya. Fayrad. 2004. (7) “nous devons revenir Ă  nos sources, ĂȘtre de nouveau ce ‘parti des communistes’ qui ne se distingue de la masse oĂč il vit que par son dĂ©vouement, sa rĂ©flexion permanente et son ouverture au monde, sa disponibilitĂ© Ă  lutter, sa volontĂ© d'Ă©clairer et d'aider les masses Ă  voir de leurs propres yeux.” MĂ©moires de Pierre BrouĂ©. Circulated as text 2014/5

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