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Paul Thompson & Guy Lewis

The Revolution Unfinished?

4. Trotskyism Without Trotsky 1940-66

From the war until the mid-1960s Trotskyism, with the exception of some rare moments, remained an isolated revolutionary current internationally. In Britain the Trotskyist movement split, fused and expelled each other with monotonous regularity. The legacy of Trotsky’s politics made re-adjustment to the new post-war conditions of capitalism very difficult.

The capitalist revival and the economic crisis

The Transitional Programme had said that capitalism had no future; productive forces had stagnated and reforms were impossible. After the war the FI continued the same analyses. Mandel, their leading economist wrote for the FI in 1946:

There is no reason whatever to assume that we are facing a new epoch of capitalist stabilisation and development. On the contrary, the war has acted only to aggravate the disproportion between the increased productivity of the capitalist economy and the capacity of the world market to absorb it.

This analysis was re-affirmed in 1948 and substantially accepted again in 1951. A majority of the newly formed Revolutionary Communist Party (the only united Trotskyist grouping ever to exist in Britain) did not accept it fully, but had little by way of counter-analysis. The followers of Gerry Healey maintained the orthodox line in Britain. This line only came to be re-assessed in 1954/5, when the imminent world economic crisis was unlikely, and even the FI had to change its tune.

The FI’s mode of analysis had failed to take into account the changes introduced by capitalist governments in the context of the new theories of Keynes. This affected key variables which altered the economic mechanisms of crisis - the use of wages and the role of the state. The capitalist crisis, as Marx had shown is in essence always the same problem; it is rooted in production and in attempts to stem the falling rate of profitability by increasing the organic composition of capital. But this is manifested in different forms in the actual economic market. Before the war it was manifested by a disjuncture between supply and demand. This was how Mandel saw it in the previous quote - a crisis of overproduction; too many goods with not enough demand to buy them.

After the war, guided by Keynesianism, governments attempted to solve this problem of “effective demand”. They did this firstly by making the wage a political weapon of capitalism’s development. Thus they could try to tie working class interests to the system through consumerism. Tied to this was an enlargement of the role of the state - in economic planning, direction of investment, creation and control of the welfare system, and also organisation of education and housing, tax and monetary policies, nationalisation. The aim of this was to make the state the “collective brain of capital”, with the ability (especially as it was to be the largest employer) to regulate demand, economic development and oversee the relationship between wages, productivity and investment.

None of the “special factors” mentioned by Trotskyism (third technological revolution, arms spending etc.) can account for the massive growth rates and sustained nature of the boom. It was a new phase of capitalist development that even the new Trotskyist groups perform incredible somersaults to attempt to explain, to avoid the consequences for Trotsky’s conception of the epoch. Hence a classic from the RCG on FI policy:

There was no comprehension of the difference between the general features of the imperialist epoch (e.g. stagnation and decay) and its specific expressions in the post-war period (boom, renewed strength of reformism). (Revolutionary Communist, no.2, p.30)

The political consequences of the boom were to recharge capitalism s batteries, a far cry from the death of reformism announced in the Transitional Programme. In-fact, only social democracy could have ushered in the new regenerated system and, cement working class identification with the state.

The state and socialism

Trotskyism found it difficult to grasp the new role of the state. The whole left had been used to seeing the state a merely providing the legal and political framework for the dominance of the ruling class. State planning arid nationalisation were seen as socialist and anti-capitalist measures. If Trotskyism had criticised state planning under capitalism, it was only on the basis that it was too little and in the wrong context:

The increasing practice of intervention in the economy by the state is an involuntary homage rendered to socialism by capitalism. (Mandel - Marxist Economic Theory, p.541)

These weaknesses flow directly from the Trotskyist analysis of Russia which identified a workers’ state with nationalised property relations. By asserting that this was the economic basis for socialism, they implicitly reduced capitalism to private ownership. A critique of the limitations of the Russian economic model would have provided the basis for an understanding of the new forms of state control and intervention in the West.

The spread of Stalinism

If confusion about the nature of post-war capitalism was to create problems, it was nothing compared with the chaos that the debate over the “Stalinist” countries was to cause in the world Trotskyist movement. In the Transitional Programme Trotsky still saw the Stalinist party/state machine as a Bonapartist group in an extremely precarious position. He saw the right wing of the bureaucracy as in the ascendant and predicted that unless the workers crushed the bureaucracy there would be a determined attempt to revise the “socialist” character of the USSR and restore capitalism. He said that the dominant sections of the bureaucracy could only maintain their privileges by neglecting nationalised property, collectivism and the monopoly of foreign trade. Again, he failed to see that it was through this that they maintained those privileges. With the elimination of all opposition, the bureaucracy was consolidating its power and had no intention of “restoring capitalism”. The USSR emerged from the war stronger than ever and expanded and imposed regimes on the Russian model in Eastern Europe and North Korea. There were more genuine revolutions led by local communist parties in Yugoslavia and Albania, and a little later the momentous revolutions in China and Vietnam.

At the FI conference in 1946 they had to face up to these problems. The Eastern European regimes had not even been created by the working class, so as Hallas points out:

If the Soviet bloc are workers’ states then the FI and the Transitional Programme were wrong to say Stalinism cannot overthrow capitalism. (IS Journal 40)

They entered into long and semantic arguments to try and avoid the issue. The first formulation was amazingly that the “Soviet bloc” were still capitalist countries ruled by an extreme form of Bonapartism. China was later to be labelled “capitalist”, Russia remained a “degenerated workers’ state”. This enabled them to maintain true to one side of the argument, but it was a ludicrous position given their analysis of Russia.

The new regimes were almost identical to the original model. Such idiocies were compounded by a series of amazing somersaults over the question of Yugoslavia. In 1948 it was expelled from the Cominform (successor to the 3rd International) as “revisionist” and “Trotskyist”. Anxious for allies against the Kremlin, the FI declared that the Yugoslavian CP was a “revolutionary party” - therefore condemning as rubbish all they had said before about its “Stalinist” nature.

They could not carry on with such contradictions. In 1951 the FI conference, pushed by Michael Pablo, one of its main leaders, decided that the new regimes were “deformed workers’ states”. (Note the subtle difference between “deformed” and “degenerated”)

Totally deformed workers’ states came into existence, ones which had extremely progressive property relationships, but were hampered by the Kremlin-imposed political apparatus (The Fourth International - A Militant group pamphlet)

So the Trotskyist movement adjusted and maintained its analytical separation between base and superstructure, abstracting property relations from social relations as a whole. These positions on Eastern Europe were at least a logical progression although opposition remained, including the “Healeyites” in Britain.

The splits in the Trotskyist movement

From the early 1950s to the middle 1960s major developments were to take place in world Trotskyism as the movement tried to come to grips with its traditional conceptions. The splits which characterise the Trotskyist movement today largely derive from this period.

(i) Separation

Some sections of the movement ended up separating from it, Though still defining themselves as part of the Trotskyist tradition. The most notable of these was the grouping that eventually became the International Socialist (and later the Socialist Workers Party) in Britain. In 1948 Tony Cliff, the later leader of IS, was expelled for advocating the view that Russia was “state capitalist”. Such tendencies, usually also advocating the view that the bureaucracy was a class, became a major division in Trotskyism. We deal with the question of state capitalism in the final section. The other distinguishing feature of this tendency was an analysis of the boom structured around the concept of the “permanent arms economy”. Michael Kidron in Western Capitalism Since the War claimed for IS that state expenditure on armaments acted as a built-in stabiliser for the economy. This is supposed to offset the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, postponing overproduction and slump by diverting resources from. the productive sector. We haven’t the space here to deal with detailed criticisms. We will make three short points.

  1. This theory overemphasises arms spending in relation to total government expenditure. Increased state expenditure has played a significant role in maintaining social and economic stability by maintaining a level of demand and full employment. But any public expenditure can play a similar role to arms spending - including housing, education, health and the nationalised industries.
  2. Its role as a stabiliser was from the beginning riddled with contradictions and cannot be the major explanation for the growth of inflationary crises in the late 1960s. Outside a period of expansion, the strictly “unproductive” nature of such expenditure from the point of view of-capitalism as a whole, creates pressure on private capital as it decreases the amount available for accumulation. IS concentrated on explaining the inflationary crisis as a function of the internal contradictions of the permanent arms economy, rather than stemming from its relation to overall state expenditure, to the private sector and its accumulation problems.
  3. It took the crisis outside the sphere of working class action, making it purely a question of the internal functioning of the system. By not grasping this, it failed to fuse the crisis and class struggle. IS analyses of industrial struggle (e.g. as put forward in The Employers’ Offensive) are largely unconnected to their overall economic theory.

Despite these criticisms it must be said that the theory of the permanent arms economy was at least a genuine attempt to get to grips with a new problem. Even more importantly, because IS had a theory of the boom it could escape the economic lunacies of the FI.

(ii) Orthodoxy against revisionism

The FI still believed that all the conditions existed to ensure the world victory of socialism, except international revolutionary leadership. Yet they had to acknowledge that, despite some experienced cadres, they couldn’t provide it as organisations. In the context of coming to terms with the “long boom” and the power and spread of Stalinism - they decided on a policy of entrism. That is, they recommended that Trotskyist groups should enter into the mass parties (some had already done so) to conduct long-term work it building up a working class base. Their public face was supposed to he kept through public meetings and a journal. These mass parties were conceived as either social democratic (Britain, Australia) or Communist (France, Italy). The FI agreed in 1951 that:

In countries were CPs were a majority of the working class, they can under exceptional circumstances and under pressure of very powerful uprisings of the masses, be led to project a revolutionary orientation and counter to the Kremlin directives. (Pablo - The Rise and Decline of Stalinism)

In fact, to see the CPs as potentially revolutionary was wrong on two counts. Firstly, in the midst of the developing Cold War and East-West antagonism, the European CPs were becoming more subservient to Moscow (hence the total support for the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution). Secondly, the CPs had adapted to the reformed capitalism, by means of the “peaceful roads to socialism”, in which they abdicated any revolutionary strategy and Leninist analysis of the state and parliament.

These changes proved too much for a minority of the FI (Healeyites in Britain, Lambertists in France) so they split from the official FI and formed their own alternative. The split became characterised as between “orthodoxy” (the Healeyite minority) and “revisionism” (the Pabloite majority). In Britain this split and the ensuing faction fighting lost Trotskyism the considerable periphery it had built up inside the Labour Party through the journal Socialist Outlook. The majority of the Socialist Workers Party (the American section and the biggest and most important) also rejected the change.

The majority strategy of “deep entrism” was inevitably coupled with renewed attempts to understand the low level of class struggle in the advanced capitalist countries, together with the strengthening of reformism via the Labour Party and the unions. It appeared as though the European proletariat had been bought off. To see beyond this was difficult for the revolutionary movement given that it lacked the conceptual tools to re-analyse the situation.

What happened instead was that the FI majority retreated from confronting the question by concentrating its analysis and practice on the question of the colonial revolution:

This is the period when the conception of the revolution’s advance “from the periphery to the centre”, from colonial and semi-colonial countries towards the imperialist citadels of the advanced capitalist countries of the U.S. and Europe was worked out. (International Marxist Review, No.3)

This orientation was naturally boosted by the Chinese split with the Russians, and the Cuban and Algerian revolutions, (with Pablo playing an important part in the latter). “From periphery to centre” remained the strategy of the FI majority and still remains an important part of FI politics. This helps to explain the politics of the IMG in Britain, which is the official FI group. They applied “the periphery to centre” analysis of the advanced capitalist countries and logically reasoned that their main role was to build solidarity movements with the anti-imperialist struggle. In this way they believed that they could win the leadership amongst layers of the population least affected by Labourist and chauvinist ideology - students, immigrants etc. It explains the important role that they have always given to solidarity work in relation to the Irish struggle. A consequence of this, of course, has been that all over Europe the FI is extremely weak in relation to the workers’ movement.

The policy changes, however, were too much for some groupings. In 1960 a tendency broke away under the leadership of Posadas, who was head of the FI’s Latin American section. They had some mass support in Latin America, notably in Bolivia amongst the tin miners. They took an ultra-left line that the Third World War was imminent and even necessary for socialism to rise from the ashes of the nuclear holocaust.

The Bolshevik militant of this epoch is he who is prepared to face the last settlement of accounts between capitalism and the socialist revolution and the workers’ states, which will be settled within the nuclear war. (Red Flag)

As a consequence they set up their own “Posadist” FI which was represented in Britain by a tiny sect - the ‘Revolutionary Workers’ Party’ - with a journal called Red Flag. The second and more important split involved Pablo himself and his supporters. Disagreements began in the early 1960 about interpretations of the colonial revolution, in particular the Cuban and Algerian situations. The “determining break” came over the question of Pablo’s “critical support” that the FI was giving the Chinese communists. The Pabloites maintained that China was definitely “Stalinist”. The split came in 1965 and they now call themselves the Revolutionary Marxist Tendency of the Fourth International. Their journal reveals that they have learned some important lessons, but their past remains like a dead weight on them, preventing them from learning more.

(iii) The minority retains its orthodoxy

The minority of the original FI represented by the Healeyites in Britain opposed most of the “revisionist” developments, setting up their own FI. In Britain they had a field day. The revisionists like Pat Jordan and Ken Coates were buried so deep within the Labour Party that it was difficult to find the them; they didn’t even have their own theoretical journal. Given this, and the colonial orientation, of the revisionists, the Healeyites could claim that such entrism was suicide and that they represented the fundamentals of Marxism and Trotskyism on the role of the working class (by which they mean ... [1*])

In reaction to the Staliinist supression of the workers’ revolt against the bureaucracy in Hungary and the British CP’s support of the Russian invasion, hundreds of important militants left the Communist Party. The orthodox Trotskyists had a ready made analysis in Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism; ideas for the future and a capacity and desire to organ ise. Many of the ex-CP members then joined. In 1957 they founded a twice weekly newspaper, the Newsletter, which in its early days was an excellent non-sectarian revolutionary paper. They also called a rank and file conference attended by 600 militants on an anti-bureaucratic platform, and produced a number of good agitational, industrial pamphlets. A sharp contrast again to its successor, the conferences of the stage-managed and manipulated farces of the “All Trades Union Alliance”. A theoretical journal, the Labour Review, was also published which contained some valuable articles on politics and history. Their theory now is a ritual incantation of sacred texts and abstract formulae derived from the past. As Hallas points out:

It started with a cadre of militants superior in numbers, talent and experience, to that of any previous revolutionary organisation since the formation of the Communist Party in 1920-21. (IS Journal 40)

But despite gains in the Young Socialists (Labour Party) the Socialist Labour League (now the Workers’ Revolutionary Party) that they founded in 1959, soon faltered and lost. much of its industrial base, and turned into a sectarian organisation that we know so well today. The reason is very simple - when combatting Stalinism and winning over CP members it was in a good position, able to draw on a wealth of experience. But when it came to a question of political strategy in modern class struggle it was bankrupt.

That bankruptcy was rooted in the limitations of orthodox Trotskyism. The major limitation was that they were still wedded to the idea that the economic crisis would be of the pre-war slump/catastrophe type. The date of the predicted collapse was simply put back year after year, rather like the Jehova’s Witnesses predictions of the end of the world. As the SLL became totally sectarian and engaged in no common activity with the rest of the left, it could have no feedback on its ideas, which became totally static. The SLL could never be wrong, so their pretentious “world leaderships” and “world congresses” of politically impotent groups could continue, although by now there was not much left of their section of the FI, having split from the French section.

Such decline and developments in the SLL were only countered by increasing activity, producing counter-productive political spectaculars like those at Alexandra Palace, noted for their mass passivity and intense manipulation, ruthless bullying discipline, building the organisation around the selling of a substitutive newspaper and recruiting star names like Vanessa Redgrave. As they have such a high turnover in membership, most don’t remember the wrong predictions and, bad politics that went before - which also leads to an increased sectarianism as their members must be “protected” from other left wing groups who have longer memories.

Their necessary stress on the “central role of the working class” has led to a blind and ultra-left position on the anti- imperialist struggles. For instance, after the Cuban Revolution that maintained that Cuba was still capitalist. This derives from the perverse logic that only a working class revolutionary party can make a revolution. Hence - no party in Cuba, no revolution! They failed to develop a perspective on the creative and important role of the peasantry and agricultural proletariat in anti-imperialist struggle. The WRP is a politically bankrupt organisation. We would be dishonest if we judged Trotskyism by their standards.



1*. This sentence is incomplete in the original.

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Last updated on 13.11.2002