On Trotskyism, and why I am not a "Trotskyist"
Jose G. Perez
jg_perez at SPAMbellsouth.net
Fri Oct 6 01:07:19 MDT 2000
I've read with some interest the reports on the conference and related
It seems to me the question that deserves the most thought is the legacy
of Trotsky, of Trotskyism, and of the Trotskyist movement. They are not the
To start with the Trotskyist movement. It seems to me the current of
Bolshevik-Leninists that arose in the USSR to fight against the bureaucratic
degeneration of the Soviet Union was entirely progressive and historically
necessary. It was most of all a fight to rescue and preserve genuine
Marxism. I believe Trotsky will be long remembered for this. And his
analysis and understanding of the degeneration of the Soviet Union is now
part of the ABC's of Marxism.
I think Nestor is right to place the Russian Revolution in the context
of the great sweep of revolutions called forth by the development of
capitalism in Europe, and the events now going on in Belgrade as quite
likely their closing chapter.
I do not believe the Belgrade events close the book on the Trotskyist
movement, however, no more than the 1989-1991 capitalist restorationist
counterrevolution in the USSR and Central and Eastern Europe did. I believe
the book was closed on the specifically Trotskyist movement as "the"
revolutionary movement by the Second World War and its immediate result, the
anticolonial revolution, and this was shown in practice in China in 1949,
and confirmed again in the 50s in Korea, Vietnam, Cuba and Algeria.
The case of Cuba is particularly definitive because there was no
question there but that these were fresh revolutionary currents, totally
outside the by-then "traditional" tendencies in the workers and communist
movement. There were undoubtedly many individuals who came out of the
Trotskyist tradition or who were influenced by it who simply became part of
the Cuban revolutionary movement. But those who chose to remain specifically
and distinctively Trotskyist became, inevitably and irremediably, a sect.
In fact, the Trotskyist movement had been in a certain sense a sect all
along, since the 1930s. I do not mean by this that they were sectarian
(though many were) but that they were a strictly ideological formation, with
a fully worked out theory and program, and the boundaries of the group were
set overwhelmingly by this ideological frontier. A few times various
Trotskyist groups began to go beyond being a mere sect formation in the
direction of being an expression of the actual movement of social forces,
but these remained in all cases, as far as I know, extremely limited and
partial developments. In the one case I know best, that of the SWP in the
mid-70s, the development was totally unconscious, a byproduct of its
"intervention" in the mass movements of those days, and no one in the SWP
except perhaps Peter Camejo even had an inkling of what was going on, what
it really meant. Even incipient as Peter's tendency towards de-sectification
may have been, he was instinctively rejected and pushed outside the party as
a foreign organism.
I don't say this lightly, and it may seem to contradict what I said
before about the importance of the fight waged by Trotsky and his comrades
to preserve genuine revolutionary Marxism. But it was inevitable under the
circumstances given the nature of the fight, an ideological one, that it had
to be waged precisely by sect-like formations. Engels once said, I think in
reference to the American SLP, that even sects can play a positive role
during periods of downturn, because they keep alive socialist ideas. Or to
put it in American terms, without DeLeon, there would have been no Debs.
Marx and Engels's Communist League was a very similar formation to the
Trotskyist movement, a purely ideological group, a group that largely played
a role in the fight over ideas, creating a clear, Marxist pole of attraction
in the inchoate communist rebelliousness of the mid-1840s. But it was a
consciously anti-sect "sect," a group whose central ideological leaders
understood that, at bottom, communism was not a doctrine but a movement,
that the role of communists was not to TEACH the proletariat how to fight
but to LEARN, to draw lessons and generalize them, bring to consciousness
the actual existing social tendencies, motion and struggle. That's why in
1848, with the ink on the Manifesto barely dry, the Communists disbanded the
Communist League, and Marx, Engels and some of their closest friends set up
a daily newspaper INSTEAD.
The Communist League was briefly reborn following the defeat of the
revolutions of 1848, when it was unclear whether the defeat was for an
entire period of merely a momentary setback. When the actual reactionary
nature of the new period, based on a vigorous capitalist expansion became
clear, Marx, Engels and their closest friends made the CONSCIOUS decision to
wind up the organization. This was the logical, practical result of what
they wrote in the Manifesto that the Communists did not have a set of their
own sectarian principles by which to shape and mold the proletarian
movement. Marx and Engels turned instead to strictly literary and
Similarly, throughout the 1930s and into the 40s, while the largely
ideological battle against the Stalinist perversion of Marxism was
paramount, the existence of these new "Communist Leagues" seems to me quite
justified. But with the emergence of the anticolonial revolution, the right
decision, whatever its forms, would have been to do something like what Marx
and Engels did when the revolution in Germany broke out in 1848. China
proved the FI was not IN FACT the world party of socialist revolution, and
to maintain those structures and groups could only lead to one's isolation
from the real movement.
The Cuban Revolution unleashed a powerful wave of radicalization among
young people throughout the continent. The emergence of this new generation
of fighters posed very sharply and in real life the issue of whether the
Trotskyists would become part of the renewed movement or would instead opt
to become the church of LDT. Varying currents of the Trotskyist movement
were well represented in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, and despite
lip service and even World Congress resolutions about becoming integrated
into the historic current represented by OLAS, no Trotskyist current saw its
way clear to doing what Marx and Engels did almost by instinct in 1848,
which is to dissolve into the general revolutionary movement.
The reason for this is that large wings of the communist movement have
abandoned the viewpoint of the Manifesto on an essential question, the
relationship of the communists to the proletariat, the proletarian movement
and to other proletarian parties. Lenin is usually blamed for this, although
usually it is thought of as "credited" with this and as far as I can tell
whether for good or ill, it is a bum rap.
This arose in the 1920s in the Comintern, and has been deepened and
hardened since. And it is not even so much a question as to whether what the
Comintern did in the first congress or the second congress was the right
thing AT THAT TIME. It is the idea that these are the right things FOR ALL
TIMES, PLACES and CIRCUMSTANCES, that there is some "ideal" form of party
organization and mass movement form. This is not Marxism but Platonism, and
I think it is totally alien to how Marx and Engels, and, yes, Lenin,
approached these questions.
Whether Trotsky would have had the same approach of discarding old,
worn-out organizational forms is an interesting question. The comment Nestor
quoted about how if W.W.II came out the way it actually did, all the books
would have to be rewritten, is certainly suggestive.
This idea of "the Leninist strategy of party building" as the sure-fire
formula for revolutionary success, the turning of the Russian experience
into a "model," is a mistake. It is an understandable mistake, and one that
the new generation of fighters that came up in Latin America in the 60s ALSO
made vis-a-vis the Cuban model, but which the Cuban leadership itself
eventually came to recognize as a mistake. The reason that Cuban communists
do not run guns to guerrilla groups in Latin America today is not that they
have abandoned their sympathy, solidarity and support for revolutionary
movements throughout the hemisphere, but because they do not believe this is
helpful, you can't repeat the Cuban experience, history has proved that, you
have to create your own revolutionary tactics and strategy in each country
based on the history, the psychological makeup and concrete circumstances of
What was wrong with those Trotskyist currents who tried to become part
of the general "Cuba-inspired" movement while retaining their own identity?
It was a totally ideological differentiation, not a political one. Communism
is a movement, not a doctrine, and if there was to have been a
differentiation, it should have been along political lines of cleavage on
what was to be done, on the ground, in specific circumstances in a specific
country, not ideological ones about who was right in Soviet Russia in 1927.
This insistence on maintaining the Church of Saint Leon led inevitably
to countless political mistakes, such as the US SWP's insanely sectarian
articles about the "Stalinism" of the Vietnamese comrades and its quite
ignorant and arrogant criticisms of the Vietnamese line on the Paris Peace
Accords. Similar things can be said about its stance towards Chile, the
Allende government and the coup, and if more similar examples are wanted, go
to the Militant's web site and look up their articles on Hugo Chávez.
For to maintain a group around the lessons of China in the 1920s and
Spain in the 1930s at its core can only makes sense if the issues now are
posed in exactly the same way then, so that you could take Trotsky's
articles, change a few names, dates and places, and publish it as your
analysis of something happening today.
This is why I am not a Trotskyist, and it has, really, nothing to do
with how much of what Trotsky wrote I agree with or how important I think
his legacy may be. It has to do with Marx and Engels's idea that Communism
is not a doctrine, it is a movement. That's why when people press me on what
sort of Marxist I am, I'm much more likely to say that I'm a fidelista
rather than a trotskista, although I agree with Fidel that it's better not
to "personalize" these things. But I said fidelismo because fidelismo is the
communist movement we've got in the here and now --and, of course, I believe
to the marrow of my bones it is genuine 100% real communism, not some fake
or perversion. If I had lived in Russia in 1917 I hope I would have been a
Leninist, or if in the 20s and 30s, a Trotskyist, but as I see things,
beginning in the late 1940s, "Trotskyism" as a separate distinct current and
organization should have begun to melt into and simply become part of the
past of the revolutionary movement, and certainly by the early 60s this was
an urgent, pressing, overriding political necessity.
To try to maintain a separate, distinct "Trotskyist" (or "Maoist" or
"Stalinist" or "Leninist" or even, depending on the circumstances, a
"Fidelista" or "Marxist" current) cannot but push you in an incorrect
political direction, because it puts you in a false position on the
relationship between the communist movement and communist theory, and on the
relationship between the communists and the working class movement.
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