Duncan Hallas

The relevance of a revolutionary

(February 1982)

From Socialist Review, 20 February-19 March 1982: 2, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Revolution
John Molyneux
Harvester £18.95

This is a really splendid book. It demonstrates the relevance of Trotsky’s ideas for revolutionaries of today and, at the same time, their limitations in the world that has emerged since Trotsky’s death in 1940.

The relevance is much more important than the limitations. Trotsky was a giant. If lesser men and women can make valid criticisms of some of his ideas, and they can, that in no way detracts from Trotsky’s stature as a revolutionary or from our need to learn from him.

John Molyneux has produced a most serious, substantial and (Molyneux himself may baulk at the term) scientific exposition and critique of Trotsky’s thought and work.

The two were always inextricably linked for Trotsky himself, and not the least merit of Molyneux’s book is that it brings this out in a vivid and at the same time scrupulous fashion.

A synopsis of the book may be useful here. There are three sections.

The first (two chapters) deals with the theory of Permanent Revolution (a phrase and, in part, an idea taken from Marx) and with the vital problem of the revolutionary party.

The second (three chapters) is concerned with the outcome of the Russian revolution, with the rise of Stalinism and with Trotsky’s pioneer analysis of it – virtually the only substantial Marxian analysis made at the time – and with the limitations and weaknesses of that analysis.

It covers too, and perhaps less than adequately, the effect of the rise of Stalinism on the revolutionary workers movement internationally, on the Communist International.

The third section (two chapters) deals with the heritage, Trotsky’s Legacy, as Molyneux calls it.

I have left out of this summary an important item – the introduction. I do not do so merely because I disagree with it in some important particulars. Quite the reverse. The introduction merits extended discussion but, whether or not its arguments stand, the body of Molyneux’s work is quite the best exposition of Trotsky’s thought available in English.

What are the most important things we can learn from Trotsky today? Surely the analyses of the dynamics of the revolutionary process. Not merely the superb account of the Russian revolution, a text-book in itself, but also (and especially) the polemics about Communist Party policy in Britain (1925-27), China (1926-27), Germany (1929-33) and Spain (1931-39).

These, notwithstanding whatever errors in detail they may contain, are the essence of Trotsky’s Marxism, a restatement, and at the time, a development of the thought of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

Not in every respect of course. Trotsky was a creative Marxist. Never content with the mere repetition of formulae, he worked out radically new ideas in his time. Never afraid to change his mind in the light of changing circumstances, he reversed his attitude to the USSR in 1933, arguing that only a revolution could restore worker’s power.

Unfortunately this reversal was accompanied by an unhappy innovation; the notion of a degenerated workers state in which the working class is not only without political power but is completely atomised and deprived even of elementary trade union organisation.

A quite disproportionate amount of ink has been spilt over this issue. To state the obvious: Trotsky’s position on the question simply will not do. Molyneux’s discussion of the matter, however, surveys all the relevant ideas very thoroughly and could scarcely be bettered.

He concludes that:

‘Trotsky’s methodology has serious defects. Most serious was his failure to appreciate the central significance for Marxist analysis of the relations of production and his conflation of these with property relations. This was directly linked with his ignorance of Marx’s theory of alienated labour and to a tendency to a purely productionist attitude to the labour processes.’

I am doubtful if Trotsky could be said to be ignorant of the concept of alienated labour, but it certainly did not feature prominently in his work and the general proposition Molyneux advances here is certainly correct.

However, in the introduction and in the final chapter, he goes further.

Trotsky’s philiosophical position he argues, was basically deterministic ‘with traces of the teleogical view of history. This in turn produced an overestimation of the possibilities of historical prediction and an assimilation of Marxism to the socially neutral, objectivity of natural science.’

This is both dubious in itself and quite unnecessary for Molyneux’s position.

Was Trotsky really a determinist? At the very end of his life he wrote of the possibility of capitalism being succeeded, not by socialism, but by ‘the declining society of totalitarian bureaucracy.’ Thus he envisaged at least two possible future societies.

Unless this is dismissed as a mere debating trick to confound his opponents in the American SWP, it is scarcely compatible with historical determinism except in the weak sense (’the future is determined but we do not know what it will be’).

Certainly, Trotsky was reckless in prediction, but it is as least as plausible to assume that this was a personal trait rather than an inheritance ‘from the Kautsky-Plekhanov interpretation of Marxism he absorbed in his youth’ as Molyneux puts it.

After all, the young Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution itself was a sharp break with that tradition.

These matters could be pursued much further, for they do raise fundamental problems about Marxism as such, but this is not the place.

To repeat, this is a splendid book. Harvester Press should be pressed from all sides to produce a cheaper paperback version because it should be widely read and studied.

Last updated on 11 May 2010