Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 4
Long March of Trotskyism
THESE TWO books, published by Socialismo Rivoluzionario, the Italian Trotskyist organisation, are by their leader, Dario Renzi, and by one of their founder members, Piero Neri, respectively. Established in 1990, SR was born of the Lega Socialista Rivoluzionaria, itself dating back to 1976. The LSR and its offspring organisation have had long-standing relations with Moreno and, later, with the LIT, hence the dedication of Renzi’s book to the memory of Moreno, and the inclusion of the Argentine Trotskyist in the SR’s series of monographs entitled Ritratti di Famiglia (Family Portraits).
Both books try to analyse the history and development of Trotskyism internationally, roughly beginning with Trotsky’s exile from the USSR, and, within this context, also situate the contribution of SR in Italy as part of the Fourth International. All quotations are my translation, and where possibly, the authorised English translations have been given. This review will concentrate for two reasons on a number of key theoretical issues largely common to both books, firstly, because it is only in this light that the relevance and contradictions of these works can come to the fore, and, secondly, because a more interesting picture of the theoretical debate will emerge, pointing to the marked differences between the frameworks adopted by two exponents of the same organisation.
The declared aim of Renzi’s book is, as he repeatedly states, that of emphasising the continuity of the struggle and activities of Trotskyism internationally towards the goal of a future revolution, albeit through moments of crisis and setback. This ‘march of Trotskyism’ was, and is, however, based on a core of shared principles and purposes, with successive generations of Trotskyists worldwide who have taken the struggle on from their founder since 1938, and continued along the same path. Renzi’s book goes up to the years following the Second World War. Despite some good initial intentions and a certain degree of objectivity on Renzi’s part, who, in the chapter devoted to the Left Opposition in the USSR, could still concede that Trotsky might have been mistaken in his excessive hopes in the self-reforming capabilities of the party apparatus, and in hesitating in taking the reins of the Opposition. But by the final chapter, on the Trotskyist movement, Trotsky has become ‘the creative disciple of Marx and Lenin’ (p. 105). In the intervening chapters, Renzi stresses the absolute convergence of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s Marxism, with good old Rosa Luxemburg thrown in for good measure to complete the ‘triad’. Trotsky himself, while still vulnerable to error in the first half of the book, from 1938 onwards becomes almost infallible and, above all, a misunderstood figure by the ‘less flexible’ and ‘more dogmatic’ sections of the Fourth International.
These, however, are not merely Renzi’s methodological problems. They are the necessary consequences of the comforting but increasingly contradictory story he tries to tell, and they should be understood in this light. The theoretical shortcomings of Renzi are indicative of the main issues being debated by Trotskyism for decades. The factual content of this book is well established, and offers little new data. Renzi himself recognises the problem, and calls for its rectification. In the introduction we read that, especially in the light of the disclosure of new sources of information after the ‘epochal turning point of the August 1989 revolution in the USSR’ (p. 10), and ‘proportionally to the development of democratic revolutions in the East’ (p. 12), there still is an almost complete silence on the ‘historical and critical assessment by the various currents within Trotskyism as to their history. This, too, is a sign of the political retardation which afflicts the movement itself.’ (p. 13) In this light, therefore, SR’s willingness to discuss the history of Trotskyism is to be applauded, but unfortunately its failure lies precisely in its incapacity to open a debate on the strongest-held convictions of Trotskyism before and after the war.
Some of Renzi’s shortcomings will be pointed out by Piero Neri in his book on Moreno, so we will leave them until later. The wide subject of inquiry of Renzi’s work makes it impossible to stress all the potential difficulties in this short review, but three issues will serve to illustrate the point: the debate on the nature of the Soviet Union, the actions and line to follow on the eve of the Second World War, and the understanding of the nature and rôle of the Communist International. The more difficult and contradictory nature of some of Trotsky’s proposals in these respects, formulated towards the end of his life and in exile, and Renzi’s unwillingness to cast doubt on their validity and theoretical value, are also worthy of note, and it is a shame that Renzi’s entire and otherwise worthy enterprise is founded upon manifestations of Trotsky’s theoretical involution.
These three issues are, of course, closely interlinked. The story begins on familiar ground. The Bolsheviks allowed ‘free and dialectical confrontation on all major issues of the proletarian dictatorship in Russia and the revolution worldwide’ (p. 20). However, Lenin and Trotsky increasingly understood that ‘the revolution could serve as no substitute for the necessary preparation of the revolutionary forces’ (p. 22), and founded the Communist International in 1919. This new International included the best exponents of international Marxism, but ‘coming from different experiences and backgrounds, with consequent fragility’ (p. 25). Meanwhile, in Russia the New Economic Policy was an ‘audacious and indispensable’ measure to save the soviets (p. 31), and by the mid-1920s the internal debate in the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party had greatly diminished, partly due to Lenin’s ‘error in ratifying politically a practically necessary measure, that is, the temporary ban on internal factions’ (p. 34). Increasingly, a bureaucratic caste was on the rise, which would ultimately expropriate the workers and take power in the USSR (p. 41). The reasons for this process are, according to Renzi, the weakening of proletarian forces and their state and party political representatives; the rise of counter-revolutionary forces in Russian society, infiltrating the party and soviets; the rise of the ‘NEP men’; the proletariat’s exhaustion; the accommodation of some Bolshevik leaders to the new situation (as in the case of Bukharin); and, obviously, the failed revolution on the international plane. For Renzi, ‘there is a very close cause-effect relationship between the defeats suffered by the revolution and the collapse of the revolutionary leadership, its beating heart’ (p. 42). To counter this, in 1926 the Joint Opposition stressed the need to revert to a ‘truly international policy, to restore party democracy, to put an end to the concessions granted to rich peasants at the expense of the working class, and to pursue a serious planning of the economy’ (p. 51). Undoubtedly, these facts are objectively true, but no attempt is made to link these consequences to any underlying causative reason. We are therefore left largely in the dark as to how the situation in Russia should so swiftly deteriorate. As for Trotsky, ‘despite from the point of view of theory, politics and – above all – practice, the ruling bureaucratic faction moved closer and closer to imperialism, it had nevertheless not totally crossed the class divide’ (p. 71). Trotsky, motivated by ‘various and complex reasons’ (p. 74), continued to maintain a policy of ‘reform’. In 1933 the first conference of the International Left Opposition ‘reconfirmed its character of faction, not party’ in the official Communist movement (p. 78), and in the August of that same year the Plenum of the Opposition stated that it would defend the USSR in the event of war. Renzi admits that ‘with the exception of the Left Opposition in the American Communist Party ... the real building work for Opposition groups in other countries did not begin until the 1930s (p. 81). These attempts, followed in 1933 by the Declaration of the Four, failed because of the ‘limitations of the other signatories ... deep sectarianism and the poor tactical flexibility of Trotsky’s colleagues’ (p. 87). This ‘lack of flexibility’, which resurfaced towards Trotsky’s entrist policies, which were ‘not understood, or rejected, or badly applied’ (p. 88), is sharply condemned, despite Renzi’s admission that the Communist leadership had become the strongest obstacle to workers’ emancipation and to future revolutions, and that this strength derived precisely from the revolutionary tradition. Nevertheless, Trotsky, convinced that ‘his reasons were the reasons of Marx, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and above all the international proletariat’ (p. 80), fought against strong opposition within the Fourth International and the American Socialist Workers Party, and argued for support for the USSR. If the reader should begin to see a problem here, Renzi comes to the rescue: ‘To attribute this situation to any errors or intrinsic limitations in our project would mean totally to fail to comprehend the great laws governing revolutionary policy, and hence also its organisation. Obviously many errors were made and many limitations existed, but they must be considered within the worldwide context of the prevailing tendencies of the time.’ (p. 90)
On the eve of the war the ‘fundamental problem for the Fourth International, and which – in different terms – we still find today, is the enormous disparity between the socio-economic and the political conditions for the Socialist revolution’ (p. 93). In this respect, Trotsky’s ‘vision of war’ and of the tasks of revolutionaries was an attempt to understand the specific character of the new world conflict. Crucial to these proposals were, once again, the nature of the Soviet state, and some of Trotsky’s practical strategies, such as the entry of revolutionaries into the imperialist armies. Renzi sharply accuses the Fourth International for ‘relative inertia’, which did not allow it to exploit the ‘colossal opportunities’ offered by the imperialist slaughter. In this section of Renzi’s book the quotations from Trotsky become several pages long. For our purposes, it is significant that the ‘colossal opportunities’ offered by the doubtful prospects of having governments pay to train militarily workers and the granting of workers’ officers, trained at their places of work, not to speak of the possibility of military training for workers under their control (see Trotsky, On The Question of Workers’ Self-Defence), amounted to a ‘navy fraction’ of the American SWP, approximately 150-strong, whose activity was ‘necessarily only one of propaganda’ (p. 110).
As for the defence of the USSR, here Renzi is at his most creative, and following his arguments will prove instructive. Incredibly, it seems that we won, and we do not even know it. The author informs us:
‘The events and consequences of the war were to show without the shadow of a doubt that the Old Revolutionary got it essentially right. It could seem as if he underestimated the resourcefulness and capacities for recuperation of Stalinism, which came triumphant out of the War, as the world bulwark against Fascism. However, if we analyse events with a minimum of depth, we can immediately understand that this success, achieved despite the systematic betrayal of the interests of world revolution, fundamentally depended on the extraordinary response of the Soviet proletariat faced with the Nazi invasion. With immense sacrifices and overcoming all obstacles, including Stalin’s war crimes, the cost of which in human lives cannot even be quantified, the Russian people repelled Hitler, and gave Stalin the chance to become victor. So, precisely that “defence of the Socialist fatherland” supported by Trotsky had won.’ (pp. 108–9)
Oh well, that’s alright, then.
Taking the discussion further, to Pablo, Mandel and the situation in the 1950s, the question of the nature of the USSR returns when tackling the processes involving the countries of Eastern Europe, most notably Yugoslavia. Here, Renzi accuses the Fourth International of formalism, of relying on ‘established revolutionary Marxist norms, rather than on the new events’ of the current situation (p. 117, original emphasis). Trotsky, by the way, had somehow predicted this too, when facing opposition on the workers’ state analysis of the USSR. However, what Renzi does is to oppose to this supposed formalism yet more formalism by Trotsky. In the longest quotation of this book, he reproduces verbatim Trotsky’s analogy between a workers’ state and a liver poisoned by malaria (see Trotsky, Not a Workers’ and Not a Bourgeois State?), which amounts to nothing else than an equation between state ownership of the means of production and the Socialist nature of the state. If we follow Trotsky, who also proposed that trade unions with policies directly opposed to the interests of the proletariat (in his specific example, the AFL) are nevertheless trade unions, we would be left with formalism indeed, as if the name determined the substance of an organisation, and as if having the word ‘Socialist’ or ‘Labour’ in a name were a guarantee of revolutionary intent (just ask any Liverpool docker).
Renzi’s ‘march’ comes to an end leaving more questions unanswered than solved. What is most disappointing about his work is not so much the content, which is no better or worse than in many other ‘official’ histories of Trotskyism, but that events, choices, directions are simply stated as given or supposedly determined by outside events, without any attempt to clarify the possible causative relations between them. We are none the wiser as to the nature and structure that the International should take, or the internal development of the Bolshevik party, and we are ultimately left with a sense of defensiveness and powerlessness against each new enemy, be it Stalinism, Nazism, Pabloism or the enemies of the future, only doomed to repeat past errors and take the best remedial action.
Piero Neri’s biography of Nahuel Moreno is an altogether better book, in more ways than one. Neri knew Moreno personally, having been the delegate of the Italian LSR at the founding meeting of the LIT in Bogota (on which occasion the LSR broke from Moreno’s current, re-establishing relations only in 1986), and during Moreno’s stay in Italy in 1986, shortly before his death. This personal involvement on the author’s part, whose warm friendship and respect for Moreno are plain to see, does not prevent him from presenting a highly critical picture of the Argentine Trotskyist, in which no merit is denied, but no blame is spared. Moreover, the value of this book lies in the fact that such criticisms are not confined to Moreno’s activities, but are put in a direct relation with the general theoretical difficulties of the movement – as well as Moreno’s own shortcomings – and therefore acquire relevance for anyone wishing to avoid the repetition of the past. Neri defines Moreno as ‘the best leader produced by the Trotskyist movement from the aftermath of the war until now’ (p. 11). In his view, we can legitimately speak of ‘Moreno’s Marxism’, thanks to a ‘constructive revisionism’ (p. 14) which combined firmness of principles with theoretical originality, and was characterised by an attempt to maintain the independence of the programme and policies of revolutionary Marxism, while building its concrete expressions, that is, revolutionary organisations and the Fourth International (pp. 12–13). Moreno attempted to overcome the deep separation between theory and practice seen in Trotskyism after the war (p. 21). The entire activity of Moreno towards this goal consisted in ‘analysing and characterising the situation, elaborating a line and a political orientation, and then synthesising this in passwords’ (p. 43), so as to break with that ‘minority mentality and intellectualistic “philosophy” embraced by the great majority of the Trotskyist movement after the war’ (p. 43), ‘culminating in the 1950s in an “entrist” policy in reformist organisations, which continued for decades’ (p. 44). Moreno tried to ‘analyse revolutionary processes, in an attempt to derive lessons and generalisations from them’ (p. 74). This attempt brought him into conflict with the ‘international left bureaucracy’. He also maintained a polemic against large sections of the revolutionary left which, by calling for the support of the Cuban or Chinese revolutions, identified themselves as Maoist or Castroist. Moreno criticised the attempt to describe guerrillaism and Sandinism as ‘new surrogates for Marxism’ (p. 90).
This work by Moreno took on various forms, and he waged various battles with the Fourth International over the years. Moreno’s entire enterprise, however, was undermined by his erroneous understanding of revolutionary activity aiming to establish Socialism internationally, and this incorrect understanding, in turn, was to result in Moreno’s mistaken view of the rôle of the party and the International. Neri locates a few of the roots of Moreno’s mistakes in some general errors of the Trotskyist movement. Central to these issues is the analysis of bureaucratic states as ‘workers’ states’, since, according to Neri, their planned economy was given a Socialist, if limited, content. This, says Neri, mainly amounted to an arbitrary generalisation of some, in fact few, of Trotsky’s positions on the USSR in the 1930s, for example, the need to defend the Soviet workers’ state in the event of an imperialist attack, or to the contradiction posed between the existence of a political superstructure to fight – the totalitarian state – and an economic base to defend – Soviet planning (p. 13).
More specifically in the case of Moreno, Neri points to a serious limitation, again shared by the whole movement: that of the exclusion of Rosa Luxemburg’s current. Significantly, Moreno stated in his Actualización del programa de transición: ‘The existence of Lenin and Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party guaranteed the victory of the October Revolution, while in Germany the absence of a Lenin and a Trotsky ensured the failure of a Socialist revolution.’ (Cited on p. 22) In Moreno, this initial error of interpretation became a profound theoretical shortcoming. The reduction of historical revolutionary Marxism to Bolshevism distorted the relation between it as a current and theory, and also facilitated superficial simplifications and the rise of intolerance (p. 23). Moreno ‘considered Lenin’s and Trotsky’s Marxism far more homogeneous than they actually were. Trotsky’s decisive contributions after Lenin did not constitute an “evolution” of Leninism in Trotskyism.’ (p. 24) Trotsky, therefore, is not seen by Neri as the highest expression of historical Marxism, and he also points to a further consequence of this understanding, that is, the use of historical analogy by Moreno. In fact, he came to see the 1917 revolution and the Socialism of the first stage of Soviet power as the model for all future revolutionary developments. The adoption of this model, furthermore, conditioned the dynamic of Moreno’s understanding of the ‘relationship between political, social and economic change’ (p. 28). This is despite the Bolsheviks’ appeal to their comrades to do better than they could do in 1917.
Moreno’s concept of revolution evolved further, and led to a division of the revolutionary process into stages, which therefore does not constitute a truly dialectical model. In the first stage, the rising and ascent to power are envisaged, whereas the Socialist revolution in its proper sense only begins later. In this framework:
‘... socialisation ... is removed or postponed to a distant future, and so becomes separated from revolution, and is subordinated to the consolidation of state power. The state is conceived as a guarantor of socialisation, and this leads – not coincidentally – to a confusion between socialisation and nationalisation. [Moreno] ... sees the birth of Socialism as characterised by the consolidation of the workers’ state – with an important guarantee being given by the revolutionary party – and by the nationalisation of the means of production. But this dynamic is different from integral socialisation, and certainly does not necessarily initiate it.’ (pp. 30–1)
Moreno gives absolute priority to the state as opposed to society in the struggle for Socialism, often identifying it with ‘the struggle to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and a revolutionary workers’ state ... Therefore, he calls for a strengthening of state institutions for an entire, long phase, until the international resolution of the fight with imperialism.’ (p. 31) Neri is quick to note that this amounts to the inescapable logic of all forms of nationalisations, and that this future state would be far too similar to an overthrown bourgeois state (p. 31). In Moreno’s Socialism, therefore, the dictatorship of the proletariat basically signifies party dictatorship (again, based on his model of the Bolshevik party). Perhaps the most serious consequence of this interpretation, as Neri rightly stresses, is that the Socialist consciousness of revolution is reduced to the revolutionary party, with a process in which just one of the methods of Marxist activity becomes absolutised. Moreno’s conception of Marxist activity and elaboration is thus an exclusively political one (pp. 44–5), with an increasing importance being given to agitation work as the crucial revolutionary activity. Thus, as Moreno puts it in his El partido y la revolución, Leninist-Trotskyist parties should:
‘... mobilise the masses, not the vanguard ... With the transitional programme ... the party must give those passwords that mobilise the masses against their exploiters, starting from their immediate needs and consciousness, and must continue to elevate the level of these passwords proportionally to the growth of the masses’ consciousness and the creation of new needs brought about by this very same mobilisation, up to the final password and struggle for power.’ (Cited on p. 51)
This accommodation to the level of the masses’ consciousness sees theory becoming little more than a tool for tactics and politics, and also goes firmly against the grain of Trotsky’s theory as presented, for example, in his Transitional Programme.
Historical analogies emerge again in Moreno’s understanding of revolution. We have already pointed to his understanding of revolution ‘by stages’. One of Moreno’s strongest-held conviction was in fact that revolutions are endlessly dissimilar in their development and dynamics, and that the task of Marxists was to strive to understand them in all their manifestations. Ironically, however, his correct fight within the Fourth International at the time of the Nicaraguan revolution (as the Bolshevik Tendency and, later, as the Bolshevik Faction) found no parallels when theorising revolution itself. The Russian revolutions of 1917 became once again Moreno’s terms of reference. This time, ‘February’ and ‘October’ were turned into universal categories which could, by themselves, be the sole analytical tools sufficient to explain any new revolutionary process. In his Actualización Moreno explained: ‘The February revolution is an unconsciously Socialist revolution, while the October revolution is consciously Socialist. Paraphrasing Hegel and Marx, we could say that the former is a revolution in itself, while the latter is a revolution for itself.’ (Cited on p. 79, original emphasis) So, for example, the 1974 Portuguese revolution was ‘a great February revolution which did not develop into an October’ (p. 93). It would follow that the world has seen various types of ‘Februaries’ but, presumably, no ‘Octobers’ since 1917, on Moreno’s own definition (p. 80).
When faced with the issue of the tasks of the International, these instances of formalisation and contradiction remain firmly in place. In particular, between 1974 and 1979 Moreno’s current (the BT, later to become the BF) initiated a lively polemic, among others, with the American SWP. This led to a break with the United Secretariat, which had never recognised ‘Moreno’s Argentine current as an official organisation’, and which had ‘isolated it as a result of various differences’ (p. 97). The BF then began a disastrous but mercifully brief experiment with the Organisation Communiste Internationaliste headed by Pierre Lambert, and two years later, in 1982, established the LIT. The Italian LSR, until then part of Moreno’s international current, did not join, and broke with the LIT until 1986. Among the points of disagreement was precisely Moreno’s concept of the International.
In previous years, Moreno’s current had come to propose an equation between the International and the need for international centralisation. This centralisation, which we have already witnessed in the importance given by Moreno to the party at the national level, is here generalised in a concept of a ‘world party’. This need, moreover, was felt to be an a priori condition, so that this ‘world party’ should be firmly in place before the dynamic of class struggle and revolutionary developments could come into being. Moreno thus argued that a political current should become a faction. Possibly by generalising the actual situation of his own current, he then went on to theorise an ‘International Faction’ (p. 98), and by the time of the establishment of the LIT the International fundamentally envisaged a preliminary stage, a victory in Argentina after the fall of the dictatorship, which due to the perceived importance of that country and the southern region of Latin America, was to become the axis around which the entire International would orbit. Neri rightly stresses the ‘self-affirming and defensive character’ of this formulation (pp. 100–1), and also casts doubt on Moreno’s arguments as to the frictionless continuity among the four Internationals, which the LIT used to postulate its ‘iron law’ of the absolute priority of the International and its leadership. As is often the case, after the death of its leader this organisation exacerbated the elements of formalism present in his thought, and came to think of the existence of the International and its leadership as the automatic guarantee of revolution. Neri, however, reminds us that, in the history of all the Internationals, if anything it was disagreements, not conformism, which had allowed the more meaningful revolutionary developments to occur. Ultimately, Moreno’s understanding of the International as a ‘chief of staff’ to coordinate and allocate resources and activities according to the specific situations in various countries, amounts to the transfer to the international plane of his previous subordination of the tasks of the International to mere agitation in the national sphere, again at the expense of theory. Internally, this International would be governed by ‘democratic centralism’, elevated by Moreno to ‘a principle denoting the revolutionary programme itself, at the national and international levels’ (p. 111).
While all these developments should not be seen in isolation or as examples of individual deviance, but as part of a general problem within the entire Fourth International, Neri admits that some limitations are nevertheless unquestionably attributable to Moreno.
Once again, therefore, these two books serve, on the one hand, as a strong reminder of the absolute necessity for complete openness and honesty when faced with the past, and, on the other, of the disastrous consequences of a separation between theory and practice for revolutionary Marxism, and of the non-existence and futility of ‘short cuts’ or dogmatism in the task of building the necessary theoretical basis for a Socialist revolution.
Updated by ETOL: 29.9.2011