Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


A. Belden Fields, Trotskyism and Maoism: Theory and Practice in France and the United States, Autonomedia, Brooklyn 1988, pp363

Although the writer of this book is an Associate Professor of politics, the fact that he lacks a basic training in Marxism and writes for a milieu that has no concept of class politics at all means that what we have here is yet another non-political book written about political movements. The fact that the Trotskyist movement in the USA, the Socialist Workers Party, is just about the most theoretically wretched in the entire world cannot have helped matters. Add to that more than a dash of old-fashioned Stalinism and we have a very exotic mixture indeed.

His attempt to grapple with Trotskyism is deeply flawed. It cannot, of course, be understood without some command of either its basis within Bolshevism, or of its transitional methodology. On the first count Fields’ understanding of the conflict of Bolshevism and Stalinism seems to be limited to a remark about Trotsky’s propensity to blame all the bureaucratic deformations of the Soviet Union on Stalin (p.234), and so little is grasped about democracy within the party that he appears to believe that Trotsky’s support for democratic centralism and for factional rights at the same time is “inconsistent” (p.235). On the second count, believing as he does that the Transitional Programme is meant to pose “minimum demands” (p.239), he thinks that “Trotskyists in the United States place much more stress on the Transitional Program than do the French Trotskyists who are appealing to a much more radical working class” (p.181), and that “there is thus less a need for the Ligue to emphasise the Transitional Program in the more radicalised milieu of the French workers than there is for the SWP in the United States where the workers are more conservative” (p.158). Even workers’ control, apparently, is a “minimum demand” (p240). Oblivious of Lenin’s demand for Communist membership of the Labour Party, he assumes that the practice of entry is “not one which is clearly consistent with what most people would recognise as Leninism” (p.239), and even confuses it with left wing activists belonging to trade unions, for example those of the UJCML inside the CGT (p.92).

And whilst we can sympathise with anyone approaching the complexities of Trotskyist history from outside, the blunders he makes are monumental. Pierre Frank, apparently, is “still active” (p.42), Pablo was “General Secretary of the Fourth International in 1942” (pp.48-9), Lutte Ouvriere is “probably smaller” than both the LCR and the OCI (now PCI) (p.77), and the Minneapolis truck drivers’ strike was in 1939 (p.182). We are told in all seriousness that the Union Communiste dropped its claim to belong to the Fourth International, not because of a threatened lawsuit, but in order to “secure some sort of reform of the PCI and possible unification with it” (p.74). Most fatuous of all is the assertion that the American SWP “has been subjected to a severer and relentless repression by those who control the political system, the parallel of which can only be found in France during the World War II Occupation” (p.139).

He has also swallowed an ocean of Stalinist and Maoist nonsense. Although Stalin did not even know that the Netherlands were part of Benelux, his writings on the national question, apparently, “are among his most important contributions to the larger body of Marxist-Leninist thought” (p.219). Mao, whose works on dialectics were ghost written for him, and didn’t know Hegel from Harold Lloyd, “touched the philosophical basis of Marxism” (p.16), and during the Cultural Revolution, a noxious purge if ever there was one, he was really “attempting to mobilise the younger generation to control the bureaucracy” (p.9).

Most amusing, however, are his own dialectical meanderings, particularly in chapter six. He appears to operate using his own concept of the first, second and third levels of practice, which he nowhere relates to Marxism, and along with this comes all manner of sub-Althusserian claptrap. “Trotsky and the movements which have followed in his wake have played the role of international superego” and “like most superegos, Trotskyists are little appreciated and much repressed” (p.243), and since they are unwise enough to have a theory, it “becomes increasingly dysfunctional at the level of practice as the practitioners move away from a suggestive conception of theory and towards a rigidly scientist conception and a posture of vigilence [sic] against all political pragmatics” (pp.253-4). But beneath this elaborate smokescreen his own concept is really rather crude: that the Trotskyist and Maoist movements are split because they are not only at odd; with “the pecularities of the political culture in which the attempt to apply the theories is made” but that there are also “contradictions which inhere in the guiding theories themselves” (p.ix).

Although class concepts rarely intrude upon his analysis (at one point we are given the telling fact that only between eight and nine per cent of LCR member are factory workers, p.52), it is in fact only by using them that this extreme fragmentation both of organisation and of theory can be explained. Based as the groups are within essentially unstable strata that are caught between the primary contending classes of the bourgeoisie and the working class, ideological vacillation, sectarian sterility or opportunist adaptation are nor only to be expected, but are virtually inevitable. The very ideological freedom he recognises in French Maoism, for example, is surely because its romantic escapist Third World peasant ideology has only historic contact with France’s past, and not a great deal to offer it in the present. The romanticism of the middle class left (in Britain as well as in the USA and France) is only matched by its irrelevance.

We search in vain for any inkling as why this is so. But the marginal position which the left finds itself rests upon a real material basis, in the global defeat of the working class before and during the Second World War which, along with the long boom and the spread of Stalinism an ideology of peasant nationalism, could not fail to promote Stalinist and Social Democratic illusions, not only among masses but even among would-be revolutionaries.

To add to the distress of any innocent who might reach for this book as a guide to the maze of far left politics is the incredible violence done to the English language. Apart from verbal barbarisms such as “delegitimization” (p27) and “thusly” (pp.54, 95), organisations “operate at tight end of the continuum” (p.ix), social scientists “hypothesize” (p.35), Marx calls “to transform the social universe in an emancipatory direction” (p.ix), and we repeatedly encounter the mysterious “postures of vigilence against Marxist-Leninist pragmatics” (e.g. p.252). Oh dear!

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 18.7.2003