Trotsky and “switching the points”

Submitted by AWL on 25 May, 2021 - 6:29

I agree with Eric Lee’s substantive argument (Solidarity 593) that socialists must aim to reconstruct mass politics, not just hope for better “leaders”.

But I think he gives a skewed picture of Trotsky’s 1938 declaration about “the crisis of the leadership of the proletariat”.

Trotsky’s argument was not one about poor leadership in politics in general, for example in bourgeois governments, but a specific one about the labour movements at that time.

The previous 50 years or so of educational and organising work by socialists of different sorts; of industrialisation and urbanisation; and of the self-discrediting of capitalism by wars and crises, had produced powerful labour movements with the rank and file committed, in general terms and by their lights, to socialist revolutionary aims.

But those movements had been hijacked at the top, notably by Stalinists. Even if the Stalinists’ policies were seen by the activists as off-beam and puzzling (and they were), for now workers were inclined to stick with them because that seemed to be the way to stick with the powerful mass movements.

Hopes of forestalling descent into world war and widespread fascism in the short time available depended on the authentic Marxists developing enough energy and effort to “switch the points” of the labour-movement “locomotive”.

In the event, descent was not forestalled. The argument that the labour movements would now require transformation from the ground up would become a chief focus of debate between “heterodox” and “orthodox” Trotskyists after 1945.

Rhodri Evans, London

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