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Paul Thompson & Guy Lewis

The Revolution Unfinished?

5. Modern Trotskyism


In the period we have examined the Trotskyist movement collapsed into undialectical extremes. “Orthodoxy” remained trapped within an economic analysis only applicable to a past era and a view of class struggle so narrow that it could only impost old categories on every situation, learning nothing. “Revisionism”, in trying genuinely to adapt and understand new conditions, tended to retreat from an analysis of the capitalist countries and the changed nature of the working class, choosing to locate its theories and practice primarily around colonial and neo-colonial questions.

The unfavourable conditions the revolutionary left had to operate in (long boom, cold war etc) intensified the difficulties Trotskyism had in adapting to changed conditions. But despite the weaknesses of implantation and analysis Trotskyism still managed to regenerate itself and become the dominant factor in a much-increased revolutionary left movement in some European countries. Of course, this was not a voluntaristic process. The setting was the increase in workers’ militancy (especially France ’68 and Italy ’69). the growth of the autonomous movements of women, students and immigrants and the anti-imperialist struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

But why the regeneration in a context where traditional Trotskyism showed very little understanding of the new struggles? This was certainly the case. With some exceptions Trotskyism was either hostile or very slow to understand the workers’ movement and remains today sceptical and distant from any analysis of housework and community struggle. Student movements, especially as they lost their momentum were often used as fodder for “industrial work”. In industry the Trotskyist organisations had years of tradition of fertilising the trade unions and tended to miss vital moments of struggle outside the political and organisational framework of trade unionism. This was especially the case in Italy where the Trotskyist groups remain small and uninfluential, partly for this reason.

The regeneration was a product of a number of factors. Firstly, when these various struggles emerged, in most countries the Trotskyist organisations were the only ones prepared. Not prepared in any real political sense, but they had the organisations, the speakers, the political programmes. No matter how inappropriate any of their models were, in the absence of an alternative they were bound to make an impact on the growing number of mostly ex-student militants.

Secondly, the alternatives, where they existed, made serious errors which fuelled the growth of Trotskyism. In particular, both the anti-authoritarian movement in Germany and the so-called “Mao-Spontaneist” currents in France had at first the political dominance and weight of numbers. But this “new left” suffered from an over-emphasis on the critique of authority relationships, a lack of consistent organisational models and sometimes substituted eclectic political practice for a balanced, planned series of interventions with an industrial component.

Britain in the late sixties had only the Solidarity group as an organised alternative, which despite producing a couple of useful pamphlets, was, and is, an ultra-left sect, totally hostile to Marxist concepts of organisation and politics. Other “libertarian” groups were involved in useful local practice, mainly around “community” issues, but were opposed to organisation and to industrial activity, basing their practice on the idea that the vanguard would emerge from the “fringes” of the working class.

Big Flame emerged as a local group in Liverpool in 1970. Despite being industrially based and open to the idea of developing an organisation, it was slow to develop a viable model of general organ isation and to rid its politics of remnants of ultra-leftism.

In contrast, Trotskyism, by its very rigidity, offered a political consistency and sense of serious organisation lacking elsewhere. This was definitely helped by its having a world presence, no matter how weak or at times mythical. Its commitment to a world revolutionary process and to backing anti-imperialist solidarity movements helped establish an implantation among students and ex-students and even some isolated working class militants. The revolutionary left, given its relative weakness, is susceptible to theories of instant revolution and an ultra-left distrust of any institutional or governmental power (China, Angola, Cuba etc), where the contradictions of class struggle also work themselves out.

Revolutionary organisations which are “nationally” based in one country and which have a much longer-term perspective of building a new “International” have difficulty in establishing their international commitments in the eyes of some militants. There is also the reminder of the opposite to the Trotskyist international mythology – in the Maoist groups who have subordinated their international perspectives to tail-ending the national interests of the Chinese state.

It is no accident that it is Italy where a “new” left had done its theoretical homework, particularly in the theoretical analysis of the magazine Quaderni Rossi and the practice of the Potere Operaio groupings (Workers’ Power), that the most serious organised alternative in Europe to Trotskyism emerged, and where three sizeable revolutionary organisations exist, none of which are Trotskyist (Lotta Continua, Avanguardia Operaio and PDUP). Neither is it an accident that the two largest European organisations with a Trotskyist background are precisely those which have challenged the Trotskyist tradition from within its general framework.

In Britain the International Socialists most successfully “rode the movement’s back” in the late sixties, remaining flexible and open enough to attract many militants looking for an organised alternative. They had a different (if wrong!) analysis of the post-war boom (in the theory of the “permanent arms economy”), rejected the theory of permanent revolution (even if they had an even more ultra-left version derived from a “state capitalist” position) and, most decisively, rejected the Transitional Programme (even if returning to a “Second International” split between maximum and minimum program~mes).

IS have not advanced a revolutionary theory and practice based on new post-war conditions. Their model has often been the early years of the Comintern and the British Communist Party, the Minority Movements and so on. But by their flexibility and imagination they have been able to get closer to the working class movement, in particular to left-wing stewards to whom IS’s lively, anti-bureaucratic but economistic politics has a strong appeal. It is a tragedy that IS’s sectarianism and obsession with party building has reduced its impact on the left and in the working class: not to mention losing most of the old leading and middle cadre, especially in 1972-4 period.

In the following sections we hope to show how the traditional political analysis of Trotskyism still distorts its ability to understand the dynamic of class struggle internationally and domestically.

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Last updated on 13.11.2002