Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Alex Callinicos, Trotskyism, Open University Press, 1990, pp.103, £6.99

This short work contains a handy outline of the development of the Trotskyist movement and the first half of it can certainly be recommended, though it is heavily slanted towards the discussion of ideas alone and gives little of the flavour of the activity of their proponents in the labour movement at ground level. It is also slanted towards Britain and America, on the excuse of “the bias of my knowledge towards British and American Trotskyism” (p.3). Since the number of Trotskyists in one Latin American country alone well outnumbers the Trotskyists of Britain and the USA put together many times over, we may well question this affidavit, and our suspicions receive confirmation when out of a list of 16 supposedly prominent Marxist thinkers of today three of them were modestly attributed to the British Socialist Workers’ Party three pages earlier.

Thus the wisdom of the publishers in inviting this book from a representative of so aberrant and peculiarly British a group, which apparently now sees itself as the founder of something which is “generally known as the International Socialist tradition” (p.74) may well be doubted, for the link of the SWP with Trotskyism is very tenuous indeed, rejecting as it does transitional politics, the theory of permanent revolution, and the analysis of Soviet degeneration. Thus, for example, Callinicos appears to believe that it was the second half of the Bolshevik slogan – ‘Bread, Peace and Land’ that constituted its transitional character, as opposed to the first (‘All Power to the Soviets’, in effect calling upon the Menshevik and SR leaders to take power) (p.40). His definition of entrism as “a kind of raiding party for members” (p.34) says volumes for the politics of the SWP, but next to nothing about Trotskyism.

For it is when he turns to the politics of his own milieu, in the last two chapters, that he confirms Lenin’s dictum that a spoonful of tar can spoil a barrel of honey. This is most clearly shown when he tries to justify his previous contention that whereas Shachtman and Castoriades carried out “revisions of orthodoxy”, Tony Cliff’s endeavours marked a “return to classical Marxism” (pp.4-5).

We may well agree with him, for the truth is that state capitalist analyses of the Soviet Union do not originate within the Trotskyist movement at all, but within Second International Social Democracy in general, and in Menshevism in particular. It is true that he very easily disposes of a straw man when he repudiates Perry Anderson’s opinion that the father of ‘state capitalism’ was Karl Kautsky (p.77), pointing out correctly that Kautsky's concept was not the same as Cliff’s at all, hoping in this way to draw a blind over the whole topic. But the fact of the matter is that the credit for this particular form of state capitalism should go back to the Socialist Party of Great Britain, who taught Jock Haston his Marxism in the first place (cf. Against the Stream, p.251) and had promulgated the theory as far back as 1918. For it was Haston who first raised the question of state capitalism within the Revolutionary Communist Party, not only as a purely Russian phenomenon but in global terms, both in the group’s internal bulletin (War and the International, pp.182-5) and in a series of articles in Socialist Appeal (mid-August to mid-September 1947). In fact Cliff’s remit from Mandel when he first came to Britain was specifically to argue against these incipient ‘state capitalist’ heresies, and what happened was that in the course of the dispute the contestants changed sides. Anyone who wishes to make a serious investigation of the whole topic should consult the above sources, as well as the SPGB’s position, which was reissued as a pamphlet in the same year as Cliff first published his own, though we have to admit that Cliff’s logic is inferior to theirs, since they dated Russia's capitalist revolution back to 1917.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 23.7.2003