Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

Work in Progress

Trotsky After 50 Years

This symposium was one of several conferences held in 1990 on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Leon Trotsky, and the second to be held in Britain, the other being a private affair run by the Marxist Party in East Grinstead. Around 50 people attended this conference, which was held in the pleasant surroundings of the University of Aberdeen at the start of August, under the auspices of the University’s Department of History. The speakers could be roughly divided into three categories: Soviet scholars, US and Canadian professors, and those associated with the Trotskyist movement.

Some of the Soviet scholars had clearly been delving deep into the archives. Miklos Kun (grandson of Bela Kun) and Boris Starkov spoke about the illegal oppositions in the late 1920s and early 1930s, not least the hitherto little-known Riutin group, which attempted to organise against Stalin in 1932. Sergei Koudryashov gave an interesting contribution on Trotsky and the Second World War. Dr G.D. Alekseeva’s talk on Trotsky and culture was based on a cursory glance at his volume on the subject, and was an example of establishment figures using Trotsky’s writings to justify one side or another in the current bureaucratic dogfight.

In general, the Soviet speakers showed that, although their knowledge of Trotsky is far greater than it could have been five years ago, they are still picking up on information and publications that have been readily available here for some decades, and still have a lot to discover. On the other hand, they are now able to gain access to previously inaccessible archives, which will be a great help to western scholars.

Many of the Soviet scholars had little time for the current official historians. Any mention of Vassetsky drew forth brays of derisive laughter, and Volkogonov was politely written off with “well, he’s a general, not an historian ...”. One interesting product of glasnost and perestroika was the flyer distributed advertising a Soviet-Japanese joint venture offering a digest of Soviet political literature and assistance in finding material in the state archives.

Richard B. Day from Canada presented a superb paper which compared Trotsky’s dialectical approach to the crude philosophical methodology that the Marxist movement (including the early Lenin) inherited from Engels, and which Stalin took to an absurd conclusion. Philip Pomper, the editor of the recently published philosophical notebooks of Trotsky, gave a lengthy disposition on the relationship between Trotsky and Martov which rested largely on psychological factors, with little reference to politics. George Kline’s paper tried to distinguish Marxism from any other philosophy by considering its “contempt towards the historical present” and the “devaluation of present humans”, drawing on Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism and Their Morals and Ours to do so. This was deflated by others referring to the none-too-delicate treatment of humans by non-Marxists throughout this century.

The contributions that we heard from members of the Workers Revolutionary Party (Workers Press) were not particularly outstanding, and sounded quite thin when compared to the speeches delivered by others in and around the Trotskyist movement. Pierre Broué gave an interesting account of the research that went into his biography of Trotsky, which, we’re sure readers will note with pleasure, is currently being translated into English, although Broué didn't know when it’s likely to be published over here. Hillel Ticktin and Baruch Hirson, both from Critique, spoke on Trotsky’s political economy and his attitude to black nationalism, and Gregor Benton spoke on Trotskyism in China. All of these contributors showed a high level of scholarship, and Hirson and Ticktin pointed to Trotsky’s weaknesses without trying to decry the revolutionary project, as some of the academic contributors were wont to do.

One ‘blank spot’ (to use a popular Soviet term) was the question of the Fourth International, which, as readers will know, Trotsky considered to be his most important political work. The essential international aspect of Trotsky’s political career was rather neglected. Here is where western historians could really help their Soviet colleagues, as the material, especially from the exile period, is more accessible in the west.

Sales of Revolutionary History were disappointingly low, although some of those attending were subscribers already. Not a few Soviet scholars were thumbing through copies on the stall, but with their very limited financial resources, they were more inclined to snap up the reprints from the Bulletin of the Left Opposition which the WRP (WP) had thoughtfully produced.

The organisers stated their intention of publishing the papers presented at the symposium as a book, and this will be very welcome. Should this not come to pass (and we’ve heard these sort of promises a few times too many in the past ...), we’re sure that some of the superior papers will be published elsewhere, not least in this journal.

Barry Buitekant

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 21.7.2003