Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3



Daniel Bensaïd
Les Trotskysmes
Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 2002, pp. 128

IT is refreshing to read a book like this one, not because it can be said to rank as a great classic, but because, as regards general histories of the movement which is named after Leon Trotsky, as opposed to studies of particular events or countries, it is exceedingly difficult to find any work which can be trusted as a reliable statement of historical fact. Of course, any piece of historical writing must inevitably be biased, but in this area the bias has been more obtrusive than it should have been, I guess, in most cases. Daniel Bensaïd, however, does not see it as his duty to defend every position and turn of the tendency which he supports, remarking: ‘As far as our heritage is concerned, filial piety is not always the best gauge of fidelity, and one often finds more fidelity present in critical infidelity than in dogmatic intolerance.’ (p. 5) Admirable sentiments!

The author’s honesty is also evident from the title he chooses: ‘Trotskyisms’ as opposed to the singular. The furious debates in the movement and the numerous different tendencies to which it has given birth make the plural highly suitable. Bensaïd, indeed, goes further than identifying the major divisions and split-offs – there is an intriguing diagram on page 4 which attempts to represent these – by recognising ‘an Anglo-Saxon Trotskyism …, a European (mainly French-speaking) Trotskyism …, a Latin-American Trotskyism, or, again, an Asiatic Trotskyism (in China, Vietnam, Japan and Sri Lanka)’ (p. 7). This latter view is not substantiated in the text, but perhaps a case could be made out for it.

The inevitable contrast with the previous ‘in-house’ summary of the history of the movement, issuing from the pen of the lugubrious Pierre Frank, The Fourth International: The Long March of the Trotskyists (Ink Links, 1972), can be seen even in the chapter headings, viz.:

  1. The Baggage of Exodus

  2. Trotsky’s Last Struggle

  3. Heritage without Directions for Use

  4. The Scattered Tribes

  5. Waiting for Godot

  6. Entrism, or How To Get Out?

  7. History Bites Us in the Neck

  8. A New Epoch

  9. End, or Continuation.

Pierre Frank would never have used such headings: their evident irreverence was totally foreign to him. Frank’s history covers the period of 1923 to 1968, whereas Bensaïd’s goes from 1923 to the Thirteenth World Reunification Congress of January 1991 – the subsequent 10 years are briefly treated in the book’s last chapter. We have a chance, then, of comparing both authors up to 1968 – which is why it would be a mistake to chuck Pierre Frank’s book in the dustbin, despite its uninspiring tone. For example, an interesting point of comparison is the European Conference of 1944, held under the Nazi occupation, and the position of the French Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste, one of the three Trotskyist organisations operating in France in the Second World War. Here Bensaïd gives some details of Marcel Hic’s Theses on the National Question (July 1942) – Hic was one of the leaders of the POI and was also responsible for the operation of the International Secretariat at that time. Hic’s theses argued for support for the right of distinct linguistic communities (such as the Bretons, Basques, Flemings, Walloons, etc.) to be governed, to dispense justice and to receive an education in their own language. Nonetheless, both Frank and Bensaïd seem to agree on the ‘social-patriotic deviation’ (in Frank’s words) of the POI in the Second World War. (On the French Trotskyists in the Second World War and the Fourth International in general therein, see Revolutionary History, Volume 1, no. 3, Autumn 1988, and Volume 3, no. 4, Autumn 1991. See also Ian Birchall, With the Masses, Against the Stream: French Trotskyism in the Second World War, Revolutionary History, Volume 1, no. 4, Winter 1988–89, pp. 34–38.) Another more dramatic comparison between the two authors can be seen in their respective attitudes to the non-fulfilment of Trotsky’s optimistic predictions concerning the likely results of the Second World War, that is, his expectation of revolutionary upheavals in the ‘advanced countries’ and the downfall of the Soviet bureaucracy (see Trotsky’s Writings 1935–36, p. 260, for one example of this prediction). Bensaïd states candidly:

Rather than revise the pre-war analyses in the light of unforeseen factors such as the balance of atomic terror, the predominant view among the leaders of the International, in Europe as well as in the US, was to consider the postwar period as a pause or interval in a war which was bound to continue in various different forms. (p. 58)

A valuable admission – one which the complacent Pierre Frank does not care to make. For Bensaïd: ‘The unforeseen turn of world events in 1947–48 would have demanded a more radical redefinition of the International’s project.’ (p. 64)

Precisely, and it is here that Bensaïd locates the source of the fissiparous tendencies (as expressed in the old joke: ‘two Trotskyists, three factions’) which took shape in the 1953 split and on other occasions (page 64 yet again). It is interesting to compare this judgement with the recent verdict of Phil Sharpe, who also links the fractures and fissions to the fate of Trotsky’s pre-war perspective:

What was the alternative to this catastrophist perspective of war–revolution (which seemed to be realised with the Korean War), was it to adjust to capitalism and reformism? No, it was necessary to transform the catastrophe perspective and accept the stabilisation of Stalinism and capitalism, and to become propaganda organisations that developed Marxist theory and attempted to develop Marxist culture within the proletariat. This would represent the theoretical preparation for future class struggle. Instead of this, the short-term failure of the catastrophe perspective led to splits in the Fourth International and adaptation to Stalinism as revolutionary by the majority sections. The minority led by the American SWP had the catastrophist perspective of the American Theses and held that America was the imminent centre of world revolution. This prediction was not sustainable and when the Cuban revolution occurred the US SWP adapted to it as the centre of non-Stalinist world revolution. (Further Studies in Dialectical Materialism, n.d. [2002], p. 151)

There is more in Bensaïd’s book that can be chalked up on the credit side. Discussing the 1953 split, he questions, for example, the advisability of compelling French and US comrades to vote on electoral tactics or priority tasks in Bolivia, and vice versa (p. 84). This is not to say that comrades in one country should not give advice to those in another, but that the different national sections should be allowed a degree of autonomy. There are some useful observations on entrism (p. 92), where the author highlights the danger of reducing political work to operating within a non-revolutionary organisation and confining oneself to ‘giving advice’ to the leadership thereof. Bensaïd has a fluent style, and parts of the work, such as the sections on the purges in the USSR, Trotsky in exile and Vorkuta, are movingly written, but perhaps the best pages in the book are those dealing with the results of attempting to carry out a strategy of guerrilla warfare in Latin America in the wake of the Cuban revolution – a tactic which ended in the death or incarceration of many good comrades. There is also a useful discussion of the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 (pp. 113–4), where, in opposition to predictable tendencies within Trotskyist ranks calling for support for the presence of Russian troops or, alternatively, condemning their operations there outright, a minority including such figures as Tariq Ali, Gilbert Achcar and Michel Lequesne took the view that the way forward was to call for withdrawal of the troops together with support for the most progressive elements of the Afghan resistance (presumably this meant Ahmad Shah Masoud and his forces). Finally, as one might expect, Bensaïd has a lot to tell about developments in Western Europe (outside the UK) from 1940 onwards – especially from 1968 onwards – and the information he gives here is a principal reason why someone should undertake to translate the book into English.

Despite having the above virtues, it must be said that this work is not the definitive history of the movement that we need, for a number of reasons. To take the least serious defect first, there is very little on the UK – which from one point of view is just as well! Anyone wishing to appreciate developments in these islands would do well to begin with Ted Grant’s recently published History of British Trotskyism (Wellred Publications, 2002) plus the writings of Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson. There is a brief mention in Les Trotkysmes of Natalia Trotsky’s denunciation of the postwar Fourth International (pp. 66–7), which could have been given more emphasis and content (Natalia’s letter is reprinted in The Fourth International, Stalinism and the Origins of the IS: Some Documents, Pluto Press, 1971, pp. 100–4). Finally, but by no means least, it is surely impossible to write an authoritative history of the Fourth International without dealing with the experiences of its supporters in those countries where they succeeded in gaining the most significant support, namely, the USSR, China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Cuba, Chile (in the 1930s) and Bolivia.

It only remains for me to add that the bibliography at the end of Bensaïd’s book is valuable in its own right, and to give the author’s conclusion, which I wholeheartedly endorse:

The collapse of ‘really non-existent socialism’ has freed the new generation from those anti-models that clamped down on the imagination and compromised the very idea of communism. But the alternative to the barbarism of capital will not appear without a serious assessment being made of the terrible century which has just ended. In this sense, at least a certain Trotskyism, or a certain Trotskyist spirit, is by no means outmoded. Its heritage without directions for use is probably insufficient, but nonetheless necessary in order to demolish the equation of Stalinism with communism, to free the living from the weight of the dead generations, and to turn the page of disillusionment.

Bien dit, camarade! Bravo!

Chris Gray

Updated by ETOL: 23.10.2011