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Paul Thompson & Guy Lewis

The Revolution Unfinished?


The most important tendency on the revolutionary left in Britain today is Trotskyism (IMG, WRP etc) or “semi-Trotskyism” (IS). They are important not primarily because of size, but because Trotskyist politics has for a long time defined the terms of debate among revolutionary socialists. Anarchism is irrelevant, Maoists largely absent and an independent Marxist tradition weak. So for those of us outside of or critical of the Trotskyist tradition, there has been a great need of an all-round critique [1] which did not suffer from political sectarianism and slander (the Solidarity pamphlets [2], Mavrakis [3]).

That is the aim of this pamphlet, though in many ways our analysis is still inadequate and under-developed. We hope it will stimulate the kind of debate that helps towards the long-term process of unification of the revolutionary left that in some ways shares the historical experience and tradition of Marxism and Leninism.

We have had little to draw on and have had to come to terms with the fact that for many years the revolutionary left in Britain has been synonymous with Trotskyism, unlike many other European countries, notably Italy. The pamphlet does not concentrate on detailed criticisms of the theory and practice of various groupings. Where this is made, it is attempted to be integrated into a general analysis of the development of Trotskyist politics. We know there are differences between the various groups, and we try to explain some of them: but we also believe it is necessary to understand the general characteristics of Trotskyism. After all, even the IMG stated recently that the differences between the various groups was less than existed inside the Bolshevik Party.

If the Trotskyist organisations have weaknesses today they exist because of two factors. First, because of a failure to radically up-date Trotsky’s analyses and theories; to understand the specificity of the development of those ideas in the process and degeneration of the Russian revolution and how they were consolidated in the peculiar conditions of the 1930s with the creation of the Fourth International. The fact that we refer to “up-dating” indicates that we are not totally hostile to the Trotskyist tradition. Trotsky was one of the world’s greatest revolutionaries and many of his ideas played an important part in the unfolding of the revolutionary process. More importantly, Trotskyism during three long and difficult decades kept alive almost single-handedly and against tremendous odds many of the essential elements of revolutionary Marxism – concepts of proletarian internationalism, workers democracy and a struggle against bureaucracy in party and state – even if much of the politics became ossified in the political wilderness not of their own making.

Despite the strength and historical importance of Trotskyism, the second factor of weakness is more general and is located in Trotsky’s methodological errors of political analysis. In his recent book Mavrakis points to three inter-connected methodological errors:

  1. “Principled dogmatism”, a level of abstract generality of politics which seldom develops correctly because the concept of practice and political programmes does not allow for new understandings to filter back to theory.
  2. Therefore a failure to analyse a conjuncture in its specificity.
  3. An inability to distinguish between various levels of the contradictions between classes and social forces (economic, legal-political, ideological etc).

Lenin once criticised Trotsky by saying:

In all his theses he looks at the question from the angle of general principles. (Collected Works, Vol.32)

The idea of from “principles to reality” has a bad effect on the development of an understanding of new strategies and tactics; different phases and stages of struggle. It badly reduces the effectiveness of Trotsky’s theories. For instance, Gramsci referred to the theory of permanent revolution as:

Nothing but a generic forecast presented as a dogma and which demolishes itself by not coming true. (Prison Notebooks, p.241)

This static and unchanging concern to impose abstract principles on almost any situation has been both the strength and weakness of Trottkism. Strength because it has meant consistency and continuity of analysis whose very certainty is attractive and which facilitates the kind of cadre-training that means that all over the world in innumerable meetings Trotskyist comrades will be getting up and giving the same line. Weakness because it has hampered the revolutionary left’s ability to respond to new situations and because many arrogant “interventions” in meetings have alienated thousands of people from the idea of revolutionary organisation of any type. It is this type of political method that generated one of the most bitter attacks on Trotskyism by Regis Debray. [4]

One could say of Trotskyism, as of Abraham, that its separation from destiny is just what its highest destiny is. The worker-cum-peasant government and the proletariat are two abstract universals that can never change, which will inevitably dry up in the bitterness of accusation, because they can never link up with the actual fact of this socialist government, this proletariat, here and now ... Unfortunately a day will come when power is achieved, when the negative will come to mean something positive ... This content is a blot on the abstract and universal: it is a fact, a destiny, like the fact that a certain socialist state may not have enough natural resources of energy, may be thousands of miles away from its nearest friendly neighbour, may be involved by its past as a single-crop in foreign trade and so on ... By the fact that he (the Trotskyist) rejects every concrete embodiment of socialism from his theoretical circle of pure forms, he is actually expelling himself from the reality of history. The wheel always comes full circle: the Trotskyist is always right.

While there is a certain amount of exaggeration in the statement it is disturbing how little Trotskyism tends to learn, that actually changes the analysis. The International Marxist Group (IMG) in their pamphlet on Permanent Revolution [5] show the trap they are caught in:

We think that Trotskyism has much to learn from the Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions just as it has from the unsuccessful revolutions of Spain 1936, France 1968, Bolivia 1971, etc. ... The point, however, ... is that it is the total theory that defines the parts. The contributions of Guevara and others are of great value if re-defined in terms of Trotskyism. (Our emphasis)

But what if these “contributions” actually change long-standing assumptions? Under the Trotskyist method they can only be re-defined to ignore unacceptable content. The most notable example of failure to learn something new was the reaction to the Cultural Revolution in China. For all its weaknesses, it was the first indication that the degeneration of revolutionary processes was not inevitable. Internationally, Trotskyism tended to dismiss these events as a “struggle within the bureaucracy”. The ability to learn is hampered by the search for a politically linear history. The same IMG pamphlet says that the aim of Trotskyism is to:

... give an analysis of the inner-mechanism of entire process – from the causes of the Cuban, Chinese and Bolivian revolutions to the internal crises of the workers states, to the revolutionary events of May ’68. [p.48]

Unfortunately, no single analysis is possible, precisely because there is no “inner-mechanism” that motivates such widely differing processes. Attempts to have an International dictating universal formulas to organisations in different countries has proved disastrous to the Trotskyist movement, reducing its effectiveness and adaptability in places like Portugal, where it has been marginalised.

The attempt to maintain doctrinal purity, rather than flexibly adapting to new conditions (always condemned as “centrism” or “populism”) is at least partially responsible for the incredible history of faction-fighting that has dogged the Trotskyist movement. In Britain alone the number of new groups in the past couple of years has almost reached double figures. Unfortunately, for the left as a whole, this is more a product of the crisis of Trotskyism than the crisis of the capitalist system itself.

We now turn to an examination of the context and development of Trotsky’s theories.



1. Independent critiques of Trotskyism are beginning to emerge. A recent example is Geoff Hodgson’s Trotsky and Fatalistic Marxism (Spokesman pamphlet) but this concentrates on only a small, if important, area of Trotskyist politics.

2. There are numerous critiques of Trotskyism from the “Libertarian” pens of the Solidarity grouping. Aside from confusing Leninism with Trotskyism, the criticisms are too abstract and moralistic to be of any real use. They are also as sectarian as any “Stalinist” hacks could produce.

3. The recent book On Trotskyism (RKP) by Kostas Mavrakis is a good example of an excellent, serious work marred by sectarianism and occasional slanders emanating at times from a semi-Stalinist position and tail-ending China.

4. From Prison Writings – Regis Debray (Penguin) – An Ideological Digression on Trotskyism, pp.138-141.

5. IMG Pamphlet – Imperialism, Stalinism and Permanent Revolution – John Robens.

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Last updated on 13.11.2002