Jim Higgins

The Ideas of Leon Trotsky

(Summer 1996)

From Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 2/3, Summer 1996, pp. 265-69.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Hillel Ticktin and Michael Cox (eds.)
The Ideas of Leon Trotsky
Porcupine Press, London, 1995, pp. 386, £14.95

A QUARTER of a century ago in the publishing world Marxism was big. Almost anything that was not straight Stalinism found a publisher. Menshevik, Austro-Marxist, left Social Democrat, all was grist to the publisher’s mill. In particular, there was a good sale for books by and about Lenin and Trotsky. They led the field, and the rest were also-rans. Those days are long past, but I am pleased to see that genuine quality still sells, and Trotsky is most definitely quality. Indeed, it is clear that in the current popularity stakes he is well ahead of Lenin. It occurred to me, fleetingly, that this might be because Isaac Deutscher wrote three volumes on Trotsky, and Tony Cliff wrote four volumes on Lenin. Then I recalled that Cliff has also written a few volumes on Trotsky, which should have redressed the balance. Poor Lev Davidovich; after a life full of tragedy, that he should suffer the farce of being snipped by Cliff’s scissors and drowned in his paste.

The Ideas of Leon Trotsky, a selection of articles from Critique, is one of the better examples of the genre, although I would not go so far as the editors, who claim in their introduction that it is “the most significant volume ever to be published on Trotsky”. One of the less endearing traits to be found in the revolutionary movement is the making of grandiloquent claims. Gerry Healy, for example, used to claim that he had “the finest political headquarters in Britain”. This would have been true if he had deleted “Britain” and inserted “Clapham High Street”, because it was certainly grander than the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s head office in the same street. Perhaps it would be better to say that it is the most significant volume on Trotsky ever edited by Hillel Ticktin and Michael Cox.

While on the subject of the introduction, it might be as well to include another small niggle. On page one, as part of a generally laudatory paragraph about Trotsky, our editors feel moved to say: “Even his mistakes live on in the works of those who might not even be aware of Trotsky’s contribution to thought.” Try getting your mind round that after a few bottles of Carlsberg Special. Alternatively, try it stone cold sober. It seems to mean that there is someone – I picture an unworldly academic, in the public baths at Syracuse – who cries: “Eureka, I think Stalinist Russia is a workers’ state, better found the Fourth International.” Whether our idiot savant might further decide to stay away from Lenin’s funeral, and regret his failure to militarise labour, probably depends on whether he had overfulfilled his norm of mistakes for that week.

As I say, though, these are really niggles, and the volume here under review is worth having. Whilst the content obviously represents the concerns of the editors, the contributors nevertheless do not all come from the same stable. We have, for example, an article by John Molyneux quite effectively taking Baruch Knei-Paz and his book, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky, to the cleaners (why is it that whenever I hear the name Knei-Paz I think of the protection worn by carpet layers?). Immediately preceding this we have an article by David Law rubbishing Molyneux’s own book, Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Revolution. One assumes that this juxtaposition is intentional, but one hopes that it is not intended to cause offence.

This is a collection that is, broadly, attempting to come to terms with the immensely rich, but extremely complicated and sometimes contradictory heritage of Leon Trotsky. Inevitably, it covers a lot of ground that has over almost 70 years been trampled to concrete hardness by the tiny feet of several generations of Trotskyists. The class nature of Russia and the satellites is raised by both Ticktin and Cox, and without too much difficulty they dispose of the “workers’ state” theory. If LDT was in error, he is at least awarded marks for his willingness to shift on the question, and for the indications he made that a Stalinist workers’ state was a special case, limited in time, a contradiction that would inevitably find its resolution in class-based exploitation or a second revolution. The bureaucratic collectivist thesis also comes in for some stick, and whilst state capitalism is not directly attacked, the secondary evidence suggests that at least the Cliff and Dunayevskaya variants are not acceptable either. Which might lead one to ask: “Tell us please, comrade editors, what is this bloody monstrosity then?”

One feels this particularly in an otherwise excellent piece by Michael Cox, Trotsky’s Misinterpreters and the Collapse of Stalinism, in which he gives vent to the following statement: “Trotsky had few problems fending off critics such as Shachtman and Dunayevskaya because both individually and collectively they really didn’t provide much of a theoretical alternative.” Now it is perfectly respectable to prefer Trotsky’s arguments to Dunayevskaya’s state capitalism or Shachtman’s bureaucratic collectivism. The thing you cannot have, however, is Trotsky getting the better of them both, because he did not argue the Russian question with Dunayevskaya, and Shachtman did not adopt the bureaucratic collectivist theory until after LDT’s death. This is slipshod and a pity, because one is preoccupied with the howler, and is liable to miss the meat of the paragraph, which goes on to say something that is both true and needed saying: “This highly charged discussion, however, had a number of unfortunate consequences. Most obviously, it tended to push Trotsky and his followers into an ideologically rigid mould from which they never escaped. It also made the whole debate on Stalinism highly sectarian. Thus what began life as a potentially fruitful dialogue on the left about the nature of Socialism was soon transformed into a sterile fight between ideological militants who neither cared nor listened to what their opponents had to say.” It is an unfortunate fact, here attested by Michael Cox, that each contending theory is far more convincing in its criticism of different evaluations than as a theory in its own right.

The problem, though, was not only that the varying schools of thought could only contend at a distance, beyond the range of sticks and stones, but also that LDT taught his followers that nationalisation, plus planning, plus the monopoly of foreign trade were good and sufficient reasons for a nation to be hall-marked as a workers’ state. For Trotsky it may have been axiomatic that the working class had to be involved in creating this state of affairs, but unfortunately he did not say so. The export to Eastern Europe of these three elements, on the points of Russian bayonets, required orthodox Trotskyists to perform mental gymnastics to account for the post-war reality which would have done severe damage to any psyche less pliable than that of Ernest Mandel. In commenting on this phenomenon in the pages of the New International in 1948, Hal Draper quoted the immortal lines of Samuel Hoffenstein:

The small chameleon has the knack,
Of turning blue or green or black.
And yet, whatever hue he don,
He stays a small chameleon.

Lines that have lost none of their resonance over the years.

I particularly liked the essay by Lynne Poole, Lenin and Trotsky: A Question of Organisational Form, even if I hated the title. It argues persuasively that in the pre-1917 disputes, Lenin did not always have the best of the exchanges. This, of course, flies not only in the face of received wisdom in our tradition, but also the words of Trotsky himself. Regardless of all that, I confess I am with Lynne Poole on this one. It really is well past the time when we should stop making shamefaced excuses for What Is To Be Done?. Trotsky and Luxemburg were undoubtedly correct in their criticisms. It is an interesting fact of revolutionary group life that every small-time autocrat shows great enthusiasm for this work. Not only must the Socialist message be brought down from on high to the workers by benevolent non-proletarians, but it must be done again and again and again. Such munificence must, naturally, be rewarded by leadership, preferably in perpetuity. What can only be justified, if then, by the special case of Tsarist Russia acquires, for the faithful, all the strength of an Eleventh Commandment with universal application. In the process, great chunks of Marxism, like the dialectic, are flushed away. Incidentally, another slightly different, but also excellent, treatment of this subject is to be found in Duncan Hallas’ article Building the Revolutionary Party (International Socialism, no.79, June 1975). This, which purports to be a review of the first volume of Cliff’s Lenin, is both eminently sane and a salutary lesson in tightrope walking that would have made Blondin look a right amateur.

I am also indebted to Lynne Poole for calling to attention another example of Tony Cliff’s increasingly spastic sleights of hand. She mentions an article of 1901, that Trotsky had written in favour of a strong Central Committee, even going so far as to suggest that branches failing to accept the CC’s instructions should be cut off from the party. Unfortunately, this particular piece has been lost, and the sole evidence for its existence is Trotsky’s Report of the Siberian Delegation. Here Trotsky specifically refutes his article of 1901 in favour of the position set out in Our Political Tasks. This disavowed article of 1901 is, according to Cliff, Trotsky’s real position, and his attack on What Is To Be Done? was merely an expression of his affection for Martov. The reason for Cliff’s retailing this load of old cobblers is probably because some years ago in the first flush of his renewed love affair with Vladimir Ilyich, while writing Volume One of his Lenin biography, Trotsky came off rather badly in the text. In his more recent biography of Trotsky, the main character emerges unsullied, a closet Bolshevik all the time. If this fantasy is intended to aggrandise Trotsky, it does nothing of the sort. We are expected to believe that LDT, a man of unflinching dedication to his politics, should have spent 14 years perpetuating a split with a powerful co-thinker, because Lenin had been nasty to his chum Martov. The notion is as insulting as it is grotesque. Apart from anything else, if there had been any truth in this story, it is certain that Trotsky would have found a way to use it in his defence against the accusations of anti-Bolshevism levelled by Stalin in the 1920s.

Trotsky’s conversion to Bolshevism, when it came, was root and branch. His encomium, “without the party we are nothing”, despite its all-embracing character, applies to just one party, the CPSU(b), and that judgement was time-bound in application. When it failed he built, in microcosm, parties on the same model, and, possibly because it was the only way he could play a rôle, there must be an International, a world centre to direct the coming revolution. To construct a chain with a small collection of weak links is to ensure that, at the first sign of strain, it will break into even smaller chains. The Fourth International is the (I almost said “living”) proof of this assertion. Given a certain generosity with the assumptions, it is of course a powerful idea, and one that still exercises the minds of some people; the break-up of the Workers Revolutionary Party, in the wake of Gerry Healy’s expulsion, has let loose on the world several additional sets of people, rebuilding, or reconstructing, or whatever you do to get a Fourth International. Experience does, however, suggest that proclamation is as good a method as any.

Trotsky at least had the justification that, for him, capitalism was in its death agony and Stalinism would not survive the hammer blows of war; therefore the Fourth International had to be in place to try and lead the revolution. Unfortunately, when the war did come, the thing that succumbed first was the Fourth International, under the impact of Russia’s pre-emptive annexation of the Karelian Isthmus, which in terms of world war was hardly a hammer blow. Nevertheless, for Trotsky the stark choice was Socialism or barbarism, and no one else was even aware that a choice had to be made. What for him was a duty, an obligation, for his latter day disciples is more of a hobby. There are few things better calculated to keep a chap out of mischief than working up a few theses on the world economy, or revolutionary prospects in faraway countries of which he knows little.

Of some interest too is Susan Weissman’s article, The Left Opposition Divided: The Trotsky-Serge Disputes – you will have gathered that the titles given to the articles are not the most inspired part of this volume – in which she details the rather extreme abuse that Trotsky heaped on the unfortunate Victor’s head, in such phrases as: “What do people of the Victor Serge type represent? ... these verbose, coquettish moralists, capable of bringing only trouble and decay, must be kept out of the revolutionary organisation even by cannon fire if necessary.” Susan Weissman suggests that some of this was due to misunderstanding, and some due to the machinations of Étienne (Mark Zborowski), Stalin’s agent in the Left Opposition in Paris, and she is probably right. What she does not mention is the fact that a number of people in Europe, including Trotsky’s son Sedov, were suspicious of the circumstances of Serge’s escape from Stalin’s clutches. Elizabeth Poretsky, who was married to Ignace Reiss, in her book, Our Own People, indicates that she wrote a report for Trotsky on Serge’s laxness in security matters. Walter Krivitsky also wrote a report for Trotsky, in which he came to the conclusion that Serge was a GPU agent. Henk Sneevliet, too, was convinced that there was a Stalinist agent in Sedov’s circle, finally and correctly concluding that it was Étienne. In all this welter of suspicion and accusation, very little of it susceptible to genuine proof, it was possible to see political disagreements as part of a cunning plan to sow discord in the ranks. Perhaps Serge was one of those innocents who needlessly suffered in an atmosphere poisoned by Stalinist terror.

There is much more in this book that is interesting, stimulating and provocative. Paul Flewers has done an excellent job in producing a clean and attractive text. The cover, on the other hand, is a bit weird; it has a picture of Trotsky’s head wearing what looks like an astrakhan hat, which is in the process of melting all over his face. I know astrakhan hats do not melt, but this it what it looks like. On closer inspection, the offending fur turns out to be people’s heads. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but the symbolism of all this escapes me.


Last updated on 29.9.2011