Trotskyism

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Thu Oct 27 21:49:41 MDT 1994


Tom Smith suggests we talk about Trotskyism publically. I think we
shouldn't. I'll briefly say why and then follow my advice and not talk
about it. There are basically two reasons:

1. Trotskyism has developed an arcane esoteric language intelligible only
to insiders--I mean Trotskyists, not even Marxists as a whole, much less
socialists. This reflects a particular history of--I won't say sectarian,
but shall we say small-group conflict over positions and actions of no
interest to anyone anymore. (Pabloism!) Technical vocabulary is a
necessary evil when you have something that can't be precisely expressed
in plain language, but it has to be worth expressing, and I think the
language of Trotskyism is not worth learning for this purpose.

I do not mean that Trotsky and various Trotskyists have nothing of
interest to say, just that it's best said in plain English or Marxese,
without the specialized apparatus. E.g. the discussion about Haiti Tom
started sounds interesting if implausible, but it didn't sound like we
needed Trotskyism to engage in it. What we need is knowledge of the
Caribbean and some grasp of imperialism. (There, some Marxese.)

2. More deeply, I think that Trotskyism is a ladder we can kick away
having climbed it. (We don't have to have been Trotskyists to have done
this.) In a funny way Trotskyism has been made outmoded by its own
success. I speak in riddles, so let me be more plain. The defining issue
of Trotskyism was always anti-Stalinist Marxism. T-ism was the bad
conscience of the Stalinist and fellow-travelling left, reminding us that
there was a place for the ideals of classical Marxism against the
barbarism of Stalinist regimes. It defined a space where even people who
were not T-ists could be for revolutionary socialism without being for the
Gulag. Ok, it won: Stalinism is over. T-ism didn't win the way it wanted;
not with "political revolutions" (T-ist jargon) of workers against
bureaucrats in the name of October. But nonetheless the main raison d'etre
for T-ism--Stalinism--is now past or passing, and even its few pro-forma
defenders don't believe in it any more.

What is left, as it were, is not T-ism, but perhaps what T-ism was for:
revolutionary independent socialism inspired at least in part by classical
Marxism. Now at this point we do not know what "revolutionary" means
beyond saying we are intransigently opposed to capitalism and want to end
class rule. We are little enough clear on what socialism means, given the
debates about planning and markets, etc. And to what extent Marxism has a
political role to play in organizing the struggles of the oppressed is not
clear. Its intellectual role remains clear: it is the theory of working class
self-emancipation and the best guide we have to capitalism. But even there
the working class is not all that needs emancipation and we do not have a
general account, theoretical or practical, of how to tie together the
various struggles. That is, I guess, part of what people mean by saying
that postmodernism is a fact, whatever theories post modernists hold.
I think that we do know what independent means: in the US context, it means,
don't do Democrats; organize yourselves. But in any event those are the
issues--and not the ones framed by Trotsky or Trotskyism in the struggle,
often heroic, against Stalinism.

So there's a legacy from Trotskyism to which the democratic left is
indebted. There is a body of analysis and theory which people can use, and
should do, just as we use Gramsci, Luxemburg, the Frankfurt School, and
work to the right and left, above and below that literature. But there's
no point in being a Trotskyist anymore; it's like being a Newtonian to
emphasize your opposition to Cartesian physics (sorry, my old training in
history and philosophy of science is showing). Sure we're Newtonians--but
even there we use Leibniz's analytic notation and formalization, not
Newton's geometric one. And besides, Newton has been subsumed by
Einstein--not refuted, just exhibited as a special case.

So with regard to (1), we don't need to talk that talk and walk that walk
to get what's good in Trotskyism; we need the current analytic and not the
geometric method. With regard to (2), the antagonist is defeated:
Descartes is a piece of history of science, not a founder of modern
physics; Stalinism is defeated and discredited. (I don't mean to imply
that Descartes was a mass murderer or Stalin a genius.) Trotskyists should
pride themselves on this victory and start thinking about what they should
do now, since the old formulas are from yesterday's battles.

I'm done. That's why I am not a Trot and why I don't think we should talk
in those terms. And I'm not saying a word more about it.

--Justin Schwartz




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