Barry Lee Woolley's Adherents of Permanent Revolution

Paul Flewers hatchet.job at
Tue Jun 5 15:43:02 MDT 2001

Woolley's book is reviewed in the latest Revolutionary History by Al
Richardson, the main historian of the British Trotskyist movement. It really
is as bad, and inadvertantly funny, as Al says it is. Here's the review.

Paul F


Barry Lee Woolley, Adherents of Permanent Revolution: A History of the
Fourth (Trotskyist) International, University Press of America, 1999, pp356

ACADEMIC histories of Trotskyism, such as those of Robert Alexander and John
Callaghan, are either so out of sympathy with their subject, or based upon
so defective a methodology, that they can only be used with caution to gain
a real understanding. And the writer of this book, whilst admitting that
Alexander has done 'just about as well as you can without being in the
movement' (p325), describes him as writing from 'an academic point of view
divorced from actual contact with the Trotskyist movement', without 'a real
feel for the Trotskyist use of Marxist "theory" as polemical weapon' (p329).
On the other hand, apart from personal memoirs, those written by insiders or
participants, such as David North or Pierre Frank, are so factionally
slanted that the truth only puts in a rare appearance as a casual visitor.
So our hopes can only rise when we learn that Woolley had 'a personal
participation in many of the events', and 'intimate friendships with early
international Trotskyist leaders', which 'allowed some of the clandestine
operations of the Trotskyists to be made known to the author' which 'would
never have been told to a "bourgeois historian" according to general
Marxist-Leninist principles' (p viii).

However, when we examine his sources, and the use he makes of them, we can
only turn back to such a disinterested observer as Alexander with a sigh of

The sheer range of factual howlers must make this book one of the last
century's major achievements, a century by no means deficient in the cult of
the big lie. Trotsky's repudiation of Max Eastman was not insisted upon by
his comrades as a way of remaining in the party, but was due to lack of
courage (p23), Ted Grant was present at the 1933 conference (p40), when Van
Overstraeten's group was still 'numerically strong' (p42), and, best of all,
'there is no reason to believe the German events of 1932-33 motivated
Trotsky to call for a new International when earlier German, British and
Chinese events hadn't. There isn't even a hint of a progression of
disillusion in the Stalinist Third International in Trotsky's vitriolic
writings on the subject.' (p47) Greece was 'represented by Michel Raptis' at
the founding conference of the Fourth International (p86); Victor Serge was
'a Stalinist-turned-Trotskyist leader' (p328); Bob Smillie, Mark Rhein,
Willy Brandt, George Orwell and Paul Frölich were all Trotskyists (pp124-5,
257), whereas Chandu Ram was British (p263); during the Burnham-Shachtman
debate Trotsky 'would not discuss the issue which initiated the debate,
namely the Soviet Union's actions in World War II, including its invasion of
Finland' (p135), and he was responsible for a split he had tried to avoid
(p137). Coming on to the period after the war, apparently Chinese
Trotskyists were never imprisoned (p325); Posadas' split was over the
Sino-Soviet dispute, where he supported the Russians (p191); the Bolivian
Trotskyists entered the MNR in 1952 on Pablo's insistence (p246); Molinier
'never rejoined the Trotskyists' (p309 n50); the Comintern still existed in
the 1970s (p315 n42); the Marcyite 'World Workers Party' is 'Trotskyist',
and we could go on. The writer certainly does.

And when we examine the ideological setting of these grotesqueries an even
more woeful picture emerges. For example, Woolley's 'intimate friendship'
with Arne Swabeck (pp viii, 46, 333), who abandoned Trotskyism for a rabid
Maoism, has introduced into the narrative more than a dash of vulgar
Stalinism. This is particularly so when we come to the Spanish Civil War,
where the masses are described as a 'red rabble' (p298 n46) and the POUM
repeatedly as 'the outstanding representative of Trotskyism in Spain' (p116;
cf pp44, 84, 299 n56, 303 n84, 304). Indeed, since 'landlords and factory
managers were also not spared the death penalty by political groups' (p117),
the Stalinists, who had 'realistically separated the fight against war and
fascism from the revolutionary struggle for power' (p32), banned May Day in
Barcelona 'for fear of mass violence' (p122), had to disarm the militias 'to
put a stop to the arming of criminal elements by the Anarchists and
Trotskyists' (p120), and were finally 'forced to eliminate their political
opponents' (p118). But this was all to the good, for the aim of the
Trotskyists was 'to make sure the Spanish people were subjected to as much
bestiality and death and destruction as it was possible to dish out under
the name of humanistic Marxism' (p75). They were, after all, 'able to bring
down persecution upon themselves from the very start of their movement'
(p114), and as for Trotsky himself, he 'can be said to have almost willingly
cooperated' with the GPU (p103).

We might therefore ask what trace remains of the writer's boasted years in
the American Socialist Workers Party, followed by a close working contact
with the Workers League and the Spartacists (p333), and subsequent access to
'the personal collection of Mr James Robertson' (p334) and 'sources within
the Socialist Workers Party and the Spartacist League who wish to remain
anonymous' (p335). The simple answer is rather more than his share of
poisonous factionalism and sectarian dogmatism. The movement is described as
a 'Trotsky-led organization of cults' (p96; cf p81), 'a narrow fanatical
international clique' (p31) of 'unstable elements who were to be fanatics
about trivial political points' (p39) acting in 'a futile attempt to
establish the purity of socialism' (p vii). This is certainly the mentality
he gained in the movement, for it failed to teach him the simplest
proposition of revolutionary thought, that there can be no such thing as
'orthodox Marxism' (pp11, 182, 207, 223). And his particular brand of
'orthodoxy' comes out painfully clearly. Cannon's support for Lore's
expulsion was 'more out of a disinterest in foreign matters such as
Trotskyism, than out of conviction' (p23; cf p24). Pablo's 'entrism sui
generis' was 'attempted liquidation into the Stalinist movement' (pp vii,
225-6), and yet was somehow at the same time a perspective of 'virtually
abandoning political activity within the European mass movement' (pp190-1),
whereas 1965-69 was 'the period of the rise of revisionism in the USFI'
(p213). The Gelfand Case becomes 'a book of historical significance' (p330).
The only modification Woolley makes in this historical picture is to suggest
that a major cause of the decay of 'orthodoxy' in the Trotskyist movement in
the 1960s and 1970s was the 'degenerate habits', particularly sexual ones,
picked up by the 'undisciplined sons and daughters of the upper-middle
classes' on college campuses (p230).

It is barely surprising, therefore, that his analysis displays no evidence
of any command of Marxism at all. Hitler was a 'brother Socialist' of Stalin
(p116). Labour parties are variously described as 'left-liberal political
organizations' (p57) or 'social democratic (that is, liberal or socialist)'
(p31). The united front is not an approach to the mass movement, but where
'Marxists of different tactical views could collaborate in a united front
for a specific purpose' (p12). Entrism becomes 'a raiding mission to recruit
cadres' (p49), 'a blatant attempt to steal the cadres or parties and
programs built by others' (p51), 'so sapping the strength of them as to
eliminate them' (p58; cf p76). Permanent Revolution boils down to using
'Social Democrats and social democratic demands as a starting point for the
transformation of the democratic movement in Russia into a Communist one'
where 'the Social Democrats were to be duped into supporting the proletarian
revolution by working for impossible demands' (p12). For transitional
politics are no more than 'a program of using the existing liberal movements
in democratic countries to build a revolutionary movement. by so aggravating
liberal demands as to make their realization only impossible' (p91), meant
to 'attract liberals in a front with Communists' (p92). The entirety of
Marxism is thus reduced to a series of unpleasant manoeuvres and petty
intrigues. They even crop up in the 'Appendix of Party Names', where someone
in the Spartacist League has carefully provided him with the identities of
ex-associates still active in the mass movement (pp225-63), even though they
played no part in the period covered by his book, which ends in the early

The only original component Woolley brings to his construct is an obsession
with morals, particularly sexual ones. It becomes an all-purpose
explanation, transcending other causal factors. Some examples are simply
hilarious: 'By lack of background and an intention not to renounce his
fornication, Trotsky was blocked from seeking a religious philosophy of life
' (p4), for 'orthodox Marxism. served to rationalize his youthful academic
failure and promiscuity' (p10). Strange sexual comments start on the first
page and crop up all the way through: the early south Russian
revolutionaries were 'individuals of a dissatisfied and immoral nature'
(p1), whereas Trotsky's 'sexual immorality and inattention to personal
finances identified him as a Bolshevik' (p5). Every new actor appears on
stage bearing a ready made moral tag. Natalia Sedova is repeatedly described
as 'Trotsky's mistress' (pp17, 33, 314, etc). Lev Sedov, 'Trotsky's older
illegitimate son' (p10), and Jeanne Martin were 'permanent adultery partners
' (p19); Fischer and Maslow were 'fornication partners' (p28), and Frida
Kahlo 'a vulgar, drug using and sometimes sodomite third wife of Rivera'
(p291). For sheer entertainment value I can thoroughly recommend the first
section in Chapter 8, 'Socialist Sodomites and Sorcery' (pp229-31, together
with n3, p322). We even get a glimpse into the writer's own tormented
spiritual odyssey when he says of Eastman that 'his perspicacious
understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of Communism almost leads
him to the Christian view of the depravity of man' (p328).

Most of us would accept that the morality of the Alabama Bible belt does not
equip us to understand political movements in the twentieth century, though
why it was necessary to write a book of over 300 pages to prove it remains a
mystery to me.

Al Richardson

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