Trotskyist catastrophism

Jose G. Perez jgperez at
Sun Jun 4 10:34:57 MDT 2000

>>The "catastrophism" of the Trotskyist movement is built into the manifesto
that created it, the Transitional Program. This is the political legacy of
Trotsky's uncritical acceptance of the perfect wisdom of the early
Comintern. How could it be otherwise, since at that time Trotsky itself was
one of the key leaders. He made it his business to straighten out any
wayward Communists, like the French, who stepped out of line. The
organizational legacy of the Trotskyist movement is in Zinoviev's schematic
"Marxist-Leninist" model. <<


    You make some wonderful points here, especially in highlighting out that
it is not enough to say something like "return to Lenin!" to conjure away
the political mistakes the Left became prone to throughout most of the 20th
century. Moreover, it was one thing for Lenin to be "catastrophic" during
WWI and its immediate aftermath, when socialist revolution WAS on the agenda
in much of Europe, and its another thing to read the tea leaves of the
Euro-dollar exchange rate to divine therefrom the coming collapse of
capitalism, as the SWP's Militant does in its latest issue.

    Among other things, this leads to viewing the pre-Lenin Communist
movement as some sort of social-democratic (in the current sense of the
word) prelude to the arising of a real revolutionary workers movement from
which there is little to be learned politically. This is wrong. From its
first political stirrings, the proletariat was revolutionary.

    This leads to a further error of viewing the history of the workers
movement as a hegelian movement towards the unveiling of the perfect form of
the proletarian movement, "the Leninist party" and "Leninist International."

    In the SWP we were taught to pay little attention to Marx and Engels as
revolutionary political leaders of the proletariat, to focus instead on
Lenin and especially Trotsky, who was closer to our times and problems. And
we were taught there was a "progression" of internationals, the first, which
didn't even have socialism as its explicit goal, the second which was
ostensibly socialist but was a loose federation not at all the disciplined
army that was necessary, the third which was okay for a few years and then
the fourth, which was the third + permanent revolution + the critique of
Stalinism (and minus any real forces, but this didn't matter since the
correct, full program will inevitably attract the forces it needs to make
its word flesh).

    This historical progression is of course a crock. The first "Leninist"
party was the Communist League (it was also in many ways the real first
International, with the IWMA then being the second), as for a correct
program, you're not going to do much better than the Manifesto.

    Mostly what M&E did with the Communist League once they had whipped it
into shape programmatically and politically was to dissolve it. They did so
when the revolutions broke out in 1848 and, after allowing the League to be
reconstituted for what they thought might be a pause before a new
revolutionary ascent in 1849 and 1850, they dissolved it again and for good
when it became clear in 1850 or 51 that a new period in which reaction was
ascendant had been stabilized.

    What Lenin did was apply Marxism to the conditions of his day, just as
M&E had done in theirs. But since Lenin's time, the Communist movement has
seemed intent on copying his answers without stopping to consider a) whether
the problems we face present themselves in the same way as they did at that
particular time and b) how well what Lenin actually tried turned out.

    I think it should be said in defense of Trotsky and the early leaders of
the Comintern that the situation they lived in circa 1920 and then in the
late 30s were very different from our own. The question is not simply the
catastrophism, but the refusal to correct it against overwhelming evidence,
and then the organizational structures and norms that make such
self-delusion possible. The only Bolshevik leader who seemed to see some of
the problems with the "russification" of the Comintern was, of course, Lenin
himself, but he was already in declining health.

    In the case of the U.S. SWP, that catastrophism did untold damage well
into the 50s, and was one of the root causes of the Cochran split. Even
though it was partly corrected, it was starting to resurface already at the
first Oberlin (1970), with the projection that the "new radicalization"
would not be decisively reversed until the working class had had a shot at

    This error was deepened throughout the 70s until the Feb., 1978 plenum
which launched the all-out "turn" to industry based on the perspective that
the industrial working class had moved to center stage in U.S. political
life and that huge class battles were on the agenda in the next few years.

    The 1975 convention wasn't, I don't believe, the decisive turning point
in the SWP's later evolution. The perspective was far from the immediate
catastrophism of 1978 and later, and that convention also codified and
marked the high-water point of the positive influences on the SWP of the
struggles of the late 60s and early 70s. The 1975 convention even registered
a timid, incipient first step in the direction of moving away from a party
of composed exclusively of die hard "professional revolutionists" and
towards becoming a party of regular working people who, while sharing a
common political outlook and commitment, also "had a life."

    The Feb. 1978 plenum is the one that in my mind marks the dividing line
between the SWP of the late 50s through the mid-70's and the one we know


----- Original Message -----
From: "Louis Proyect" <lnp3 at>
To: <marxism at>
Sent: Sunday, June 04, 2000 8:24 AM
Subject: RE: What is Peronism?

>Speaking about it I remember a conversation with Jorge Abelardo Ramos in,
>perhaps, 1974 (my God, I can speak on twenty six years ago, what happened
>during this time?). He spoke about an american delegate of the Fourth
>International whose name I can't remember just now (another sign of that
>this twenty six years have not passed in vain) who was in Argentina in 1945
>working as journalist for Fortune-Time. Ramos remembered that this man had
>written in a report to the 4th a very good interpretation on October 17 of
>1945, an interpretation that doesn't differ of the our one. Had this man
>something relation with Cochran's group? I don't know but it could be
>interesting to search about it.
>Julio FB

This sounds like Felix Morrow. Morrow was a very interesting figure. He is
best known in the Trotskyist movement for his book on the Spanish Civil
War, but he was also very critical of the SWP's "catastrophism" in 1945.
The SWP leaders predicted a repeat of the 1930s, seeing WWII in the same
light as WWI. Here is something I wrote a while back:

In 1943 and 1944 the world Trotskyist movement expected the end of WWII to
usher in the same types of revolutionary cataclysms as WWI. The
International Resolution under consideration by the FI stated categorically
that the allies would impose military dictatorships. It considered American
capitalism to have begun an "absolute decline" in 1929. This decadent
system said the resolution "has no programme for Europe other than its
further dismemberment and degradation, and the propping up of the
capitalist system with American bayonets".

The choice for the worker's movement was stark. Unless they made socialist
revolutions, they would face "savage dictatorship of the capitalists
consequent upon the victory of the counter-revolution." The workers would
rise to the task since it was "in a revolutionary mood" continent-wide.

This analysis of the world situation was strongly influenced by Trotsky's
conceptions from the start of the second world war which were of a
"catastrophist nature". He could not anticipate any new upturn in the world
capitalist economy based on Keynesianism and arms spending. Trotsky's
catastrophism can be traced back to the early days of the Comintern. I
recommend Nicos Poulantzas's "Fascism and the Third International" as a
critique of this tendency in the early Communist movement. No Bolshevik
leader was immune from this tendency to see capitalism as being in its
death throes. Stalin and Zinoviev incorporated this thinking into their
"third period" strategy. Stalin eventually lurched back and adopted a
right-opportunist policy. What is not commonly appreciated is the degree to
which Trotskyism has a lineal descent to the ultraleftism of the early
1920s Comintern.

This ultraleftism stared Felix Morrow in the face, who like a small boy
declaring that the emperor has no clothes, ventured to state that American
imperialism might not have been on its last legs in 1945. He argued
forcefully that the most likely outcome of allied victory was an extended
period of bourgeois democracy and not capitalist dictatorship. Therefore it
is necessary for revolutionists, Morrow advised, to be sensitive to
democratic demands:

"...if one recognizes the probability of a slower tempo for the development
of the European revolution, and in it a period of bourgeois-democratic
regimes -- unstable, short-lived, but existing nevertheless for a period --
then the importance of the role of democratic and transitional demands
becomes obvious. For the revolutionary answer to bourgeois democracy is the
first instance more democracy -- the demand for real democracy as against
the pseudo-democracy of the bourgeoisie. For bourgeois-democracy can exist
only thanks to the democratic illusions of the masses; and those can be
dispelled first of all only by mobilizing the masses for the democracy they
want and need."

One of the main areas of contention between Morrow and the leaders of the
FI was how these differences in policy would play out against the
background of German politics. The SWP was convinced that the German
working-class would lead the rest of Europe in the fight for socialism. A
document states that "the German revolution constitutes the essential base
of the European revolution, that it alone can provide the indispensable,
genuinely harmonious political and economic organization for the Socialist
United States of Europe."

Morrow disagreed completely with these projections. He stated that the
document contains not "a single reference to the fact that the German
proletariat would begin its life after Nazi defeat under military
occupation and without a revolutionary party."

What was the source of these false projections? "To put it bluntly: all the
phrases in its prediction about the German revolution -- that the
proletariat would from the first play a decisive role, soldiers'
committees, workers' and peasants' soviets, etc. -- were copied down once
again in January 1945 by the European Secretariat from the 1938 program of
the Fourth International. Seven years, and such years, had passed by but
the European Secretariat did not change a comma. Exactly the same piece of
copying had been done by the SWP majority in its October 1943 Plenum
resolution in spite of the criticisms of the minority." Evidently dogmatism
is not a recent trend in the Trotskyist movement.

Morrow stood his ground against all attacks. He appeared as a heretic. One
of the charges against him made by Pierre Frank contained an interesting
thought. If Morrow was right, what implications would this have for the
world Trotskyist movement? Frank seemed to be thinking out loud when he

"The false perspective of Morrow has a farther implication if it is really
drawn to its logical end. If American imperialism has such inexhaustible
powers that it can, as he thinks, improve the standard of living in Europe,
then of course there exists a certain basis, on however low a foundation,
for the establishment of bourgeois-democracy in the immediate period ahead.
>From that we must assume the softening of class conflicts for a period that
the class struggle will be very largely refracted through the parliamentary
struggle, that for a time the parliamentary arena will dominate the stage.
If that were true, we would have to revise our conception of American
imperialism. And of course the Trotskyist movement would have to attune its
work to these new conditions -- conditions for a while of slow painful
growth, propaganda, election campaigns, etc., etc."

Frank's fears were of course grounded in reality. This would be the fate of
the Trotskyist movement and the rest of the left. The 1950s were not even a
period of slow, painful growth, however. They were a period of decline. The
FI only woke up to new realities when it shifted toward the student
movement in the early 1960s. After a period of sustained growth, it
returned to its "catastrophist" roots and proclaimed in 1975 that the
workers were ready to launch an attack on capitalist power in the United
States and the other industrialized countries. SWP leader Jack Barnes not
only led this return to Comintern ultraleftism, he did the early communists
one better and predicted war, fascism and proletarian revolution nearly
every year or so for the last 20.

The "catastrophism" of the Trotskyist movement is built into the manifesto
that created it, the Transitional Program. This is the political legacy of
Trotsky's uncritical acceptance of the perfect wisdom of the early
Comintern. How could it be otherwise, since at that time Trotsky itself was
one of the key leaders. He made it his business to straighten out any
wayward Communists, like the French, who stepped out of line. The
organizational legacy of the Trotskyist movement is in Zinoviev's schematic
"Marxist-Leninist" model. The ultraleftism of the political roots and the
sectarianism of the organizational roots make for a powerful inhibition to
growth. As we struggle to create new political and organizational
paradigms, it will be important to shed ourselves of such counterproductive

Louis Proyect
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