First Published: September 1982.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Sean Robertson for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
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This was the title of an article written by Leon Trotsky in 1938. It was one of many directed against the stream of ultra-leftists in and around the Trotskyist movement. One of their characteristics was that they rejected defence of the USSR and support for semi-colonial countries like China because – or in part because – they believed that such politics would inevitably entangle the working class in imperialist countries allied with the USSR, for example, in a net of social-patriotic support for their own governments.
Trotsky was far from denying that social patriotism was and would be a problem. He denied that working class organisations could shield themselves from it by adopting a single rule of thumb. The proletarian party had to work out its politics in the different situations, maintaining its independence, thinking through and concretising its class politics for each occasion:
“In 90 cases out of 100, the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In 10 cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie, but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist”.
Trotsky said of one of those he argued against:
“Craipeau believes that in the War – the war with a capital W – the proletariat should not be interested in whether it is a war against Germany, the USSR, or against a Morocco in rebellion, because in all these cases it is necessary to proclaim ‘defeatism without phrases’ as the only possibility of escaping the grip of social patriotism”.
“Once again we see, and with what clarity, that ultra-leftism is always an opposition which is afraid of itself and demands absolute guarantees – that is, non-existent guarantees – that it will remain true to its flag. This type of intransigence calls to mind that type of timid and weak man who, becoming furious, shouts to his friends, ‘Hold me back, I’m going to do something terrible’. Give me hermetically-sealed theses, put impenetrable blinkers over my eyes, or else . . . I’m going to do something terrible!”
The psychology is the same, even if the descendants today of the Oehlers, Vereeckens, and Eiffels of the 1930s express themselves mainly on different issues, such as the Labour Party.
These late ’30s articles by Trotsky have been mined for ‘quotations’ to explain and justify their position by those Trotskyists who took a ‘victory to Argentina’ position in the recent British/Argentine war over the Falkland Islands. In the publications of all the tendencies, the self-same quotations have appeared. Plainly they have all read the articles, or at least bits of them. But they do not seem to have read them very carefully.
For though these articles were directed against ultra-leftist politics which equated China with Japan or the USSR with the imperialist countries, the method, criteria, alternatives discussed by Trotsky are just as relevant for the politics of the ‘twin’ position – mistaking the sordid petty adventure of the bourgeois Argentine junta for a blow against imperialism, and the consequent British / Argentine war for an anti-imperialist war of liberation by Argentina. This is, so to speak, the Oehlerism and Eiffelism of the right.
In this discussion, the points made relate to both the minority in the WSL who argued for support for Argentina, and to the big majority of those calling themselves Trotskyists throughout the world. Politically the most important of these latter groups is the USFI (United Secretariat of the Fourth International). But that organisation’s response to the British-Argentine war was directly related to its deep political crisis, which merits separate comment.
In essence, the Socialist Workers Party of the USA, and the big section of the world organisation that it influences, have taken their identification with the now-Stalinist Castro regime in Cuba to the point that their attitude to it is barely distinguishable from old-fashioned Stalinist attitudes to the USSR. They have in recent months explicitly repudiated the historic Trotskyism on the question of permanent revolution. They take their politics increasingly from Castro: Castro, for most purposes, takes his from the Kremlin, whose subsidy to Cuba is about $8 million a day.
The only organic viewpoint according to which the Argentine state enters ‘our class camp’ when it has a squabble with Britain is that of Leonid Brezhnev. Castro expresses that viewpoint. The SWP accommodates to Castro. The rest of the USFI is pressurised by the SWP.
The European leaders of the USFI, such as Ernest Mandel, produce clear-headed analysis of the Argentine manoeuvre (see the USFI statement printed in Socialist Challenge, May 13). But then the political conclusion emerges as a result of the pressure from the SWP.
It was like that too in 1980 when the majority of would-be Trotskyists supported the invasion of Afghanistan, or refused to call for Russian withdrawal. For the first six months of 1980 the SWP welcomed the Russian presence as ‘aid to the revolution’. They pressurised the rest. The ‘compromise’ – the political line – was not to call for the withdrawal of the USSR’s army. Such politics is necessarily unstable. Today the SWP has changed position, deciding that it did not study Castro’s statements on Afghanistan carefully enough, and ‘the majority of the world Trotskyist movement’ calls for the withdrawal of the troops.
Over the Argentine war the USFI found itself recreating a grim caricature of the ‘two camps’ politics that politically decimated the Trotskyist movement at the beginning of the 1950s.
The best way to refute these politics is to call Leon Trotsky to the witness stand. The clearest indication that pro-Argentine politics in 1982 are not Trotskyist politics is contained in the texts in which Trotsky argued for support for China and other countries in the 1930s. We reprint some texts in full, and discuss one of them in detail.