The professor and the helicopter

Submitted by SJW on 19 September, 2018 - 12:44 Author: Colin Foster
Stop the war protest with the flag of the Syrian government

People tried to construct flying machines for thousands of years before the first planes were built in the early 20th century, and the first regularly-produced helicopters from the 1930s.

Suppose a historian were to study all the documents she or he could find about that effort, prior to say 1900, but without registering that the purpose was to find a flying machine.

Maybe the historian would imagine that the purpose was just to find some way of getting from place to place, and would comment: why didn’t they just walk?

John Kelly, an academic at Birkbeck University, structures his account of “Contemporary Trotskyism” rather like that.

All the Trotskyist groups — and he strives to document them all, down to seven groups which he estimates at ten members or fewer — appear as eccentric collectives messing around with struts, wings, propellors, and so on, when they should just get from A to B by walking.

He places particular emphasis on the collectives whose assemblages are particularly risible, and whose bluster about being on the brink of rocket-like speed is loudest.

Kelly’s political background was in the Communist Party in the 1980s. He declares that he still “share[s] Marx’s critical analysis of capitalism”.

As Marx himself put it: “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses”. What material “weapon” Kelly now believes will move us from contemplative criticism to practical overthrow, I don’t know.

He does not denounce Trotskyists as wreckers who threaten to destroy a beautiful capitalist system, or a smoothly-evolving labour movement, sure of success if not disrupted by radicals.

He sees Trotskyists as having done good work sometimes in building single-issue campaigns, and sustaining and livening trade unions. Mildly and calmly, he just presents it as odd and “doctrinaire” that we don’t just limit ourselves to that stuff. Why do we have all our theories and polemics and such, when obviously people aren’t interested?

Marx and Engels wrote that: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas... The ruling class... rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch”.

That is not all there is to it, or else there would never in history have been people who criticised the existing order of society. The capital-labour relation simultaneously drives workers to organise, to rebel, to develop solidarity, to demand in a distinctively working-class way the ideals promised by bourgeois society itself: freedom, equality, rights.

The way that happens is not steady, stable, and linear. Bourgeois society is different from previous societies in the degree to which it concentrates the basic exploited class together into large collectives, concedes its members individual rights, schools them, and draws them into political life. It is also different in its elasticity, in its ability to accommodate and deflect less-radical criticism.

Thus the left generally grows in surges — when an industrial working class is first being formed, or around large struggles — rather than linearly. Defeats can and do thrown us back for decades. So can failures to seize sudden openings. The Trotskyist groups in Britain live in the shade not only of the miners’ defeat in 1985, but also of our shortcomings in the good times between 1968 and the mid 70s.

There is nothing to be done about that other than to maintain and educate ourselves even in the dull times, and to prepare to do better the next time things open up.

This is not something new, or special to the Trotskyist movement today. Karl Marx himself was a member of a small “left group” between 1847 and 1852, and then involved in the First International (1864-72), though with a fairly small and unreliable group of close co-thinkers. The rest of his politically-active life, he lived in a Britain, where the left was very weak and fragmented.

What is special about the Trotskyist movement was that we emerged in combat with, and in the shadow of, a much bigger and more powerful movement which claimed the same revolutionary Marxist aims but in fact was anti-working-class: the Stalinist movement. The pressures of marginalisation, and seepage of ideas from the overbearing Stalinist neighbour, have mis-shaped the Trotskyist spectrum, and are the basic reason for many of the pathologies which infest it.

Kelly maps seven “families of Trotskyism”. However, only one of those is delineated politically (“Third Camp”), rather than stylistically.

Solidarity readers will find it odd to have us classified with the SWP, Counterfire, and RS21, on the grounds that all four groups have historically named the USSR as an exploiting class society. For near 20 years now the SWP and Counterfire have been among the most “second-camp”-ist of Trotskisant groups, siding with whoever (mostly various forces of political Islam) comes into conflict with the “first camp” of the USA and its allies.

For Kelly all the seven “families” are pretty much hopeless cases because they share the “foundation stone” of “party-building”. He presents all the Trotskyist groups as wanting to build parties whose mission is the “destruction of the capitalist state”.

He conflates all of us, more or less, with the more ranting and self-absorbed sects calling themselves Trotskyist, with their “penalties for dissent, including suspension and expulsion”. I would guess his fundamental misunderstanding is informed by Kelly’s time in the CP. The Yugoslav, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. CPs did indeed put themselves, as militarised administrative machines, in place of the previous government machine.

The view of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and the rest was different: the work of dismantling the existing bourgeois hierarchies and replacing them by a new democratic form of rule is down to the mobilised working class, and the task of a revolutionary party is not to substitute but to help the working class gain clarity and organisation.

Kelly reads back the revolutionary Stalinist overthrows onto the October 1917 workers’ revolution in Russia — where the old Tsarist state was destroyed and replaced by the soviets — and in an early chapter stresses “common features” between Bolshevism and Stalinism, as background to his broad-brush denunciation of all Trotskyist groups as would-be authoritarian sects.

Kelly seems frankly puzzled that a political group should devote as much energy to self-education and to arguing sometimes-unpopular ideas as Workers’ Liberty does. His thought when surveying the admittedly poor record of electoral attempts by Trotskyist groups in the last 20 years or so seems to be: why don’t we go for a softer sell?

Among the various Trotskyist strands, his tone is friendliest towards what he calls the “Mainstream” family, today represented by the small Mandelite group Socialist Resistance. Maybe this is mostly because SR constantly defers to whatever “left” ideas it sees as popular — in the last twenty years the group has drifted from being the SWP’s sidekick in the Socialist Alliance, to immersion in Respect, to immersion in Green Left, to immersion in Left Unity, to an uneventful existence in the Labour left.

Revolutionary socialist groups are simply collectives of people who have decided — even in quiet times — to work at understanding and organising, and so can hope to educate ourselves sufficiently to be able to contribute when the big upheavals come, both by virtue of having sufficient education, and by virtue of having established ourselves enough that we can get a hearing.

If no big upheavals are to come — if capitalism is going to be stable, and the working class is going to be docile, forever — then we are wasting our time. If they are to come, then to junk our theories and ideas in search of a few votes here or a friendlier reception there is like taking the bits which we hoped to make a helicopter from and turning them into a hut instead.

John Kelly has worked hard on the archives. Perhaps it is inevitable he’d get many details wrong, and he does. We discussed some of them at our summer school, Ideas for Freedom, on 23-24 June 2018. The interesting thing is that all the errors of factual detail run in a single direction — towards presenting the life of Trotskyist organisations in complete dissociation from our aims, and all the organisations without exception as censorious sects which develop our ideas not through a process of trying (well or badly) to understand events, but for capricious, incomprehensible, arbitrary reasons.

If a vertical take-off flying vehicle had been impossible, then of course all the efforts from 400BC to build helicopters would have been pointless, or at least any constructive outcome would have been different from the would-be inventor’s purposes. But is replacing capitalism by a better society impossible?

Whether it is worth distinguishing among the would-be Trotskyist groups, and building up the more rational and enlightened against the more obscurantist or simply opportunist, or whether Kelly is right to dismiss us all, depends on that question.

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