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Archive for the ‘Marxian Theory’ Category

Clara Zetkin’s defense of the united front-John Riddell 

Posted by admin On May - 16 - 2019 Comments Off on Clara Zetkin’s defense of the united front-John Riddell 


Clara Zetkin in the 1920s
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell’s Marxist Essays and Commentary Blog — An internationally respected revolutionary leader since the 1880s and a close collaborator of Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) became part of the newly formed Communist International (Comintern) in 1919. In 1921, she joined with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky in helping to win the Comintern to an effort to unify working people and their organizations in joint struggle against the evils of capitalism. This policy was termed the “united front.” (See “Clara Zetkin’s Struggle for the United Front”.)

Two years later, the German Communist leader applied this policy to the challenge of unity against fascism in a report adopted by the Comintern. (See Zetkin, “The Struggle Against Fascism” and “Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and Win“.)

Yet in 1924 the visionary policy championed by Zetkin was overturned. Zetkin spent the last decade of her life as an honoured but effectively silenced dissident as the Comintern decayed into Stalinist degeneration.

Zetkin’s efforts to uphold united-front policy during these years is outlined below. The text that follows first appeared in Clara Zetkin, Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, ed. Mike Taber and John Riddell, Haymarket Books, 2017.[1] See also “Part 2: Years of Stubborn Resistance, 1928-1933“.

Zetkin’s defeat at the Fifth World Congress
Twelve months after the Comintern’s adoption of Clara Zetkin’s report and resolution on fascism, this position was overturned by its Fifth World Congress, held in June-July 1924.

During the next few years, as the International came increasingly under the domination of a bureaucratic apparatus headed by Joseph Stalin, its view on fascism and the united front shifted several times, without ever returning fully to its 1923 position. Then in 1928 the Comintern embraced a sectarian stance, opposed in principle to antifascist unity of any kind with Social Democratic and other non-Communist currents in the workers’ movement, whom it labeled “social fascists.” This refusal, combined with a corresponding rejection of united action by leaders of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), opened the door to Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany in January 1933.

Although increasingly burdened by illness and loss of vision, Zetkin remained an active member of the Comintern during these years. The International’s officials blocked her from openly expressing her views on fascism and the united front. Nonetheless, she found ways to indicate her disagreement on these questions. In August 1932 she managed to express the essence of her 1923 report on fascism in a speech to the German Reichstag (parliament). When Zetkin died a year later at the age of 75, she was one of the few leading figures within the Communist International who was still attempting to stand on the ground of the Comintern under Lenin.
About-face on workers’ unity
In his opening report to the Fifth Comintern Congress in 1924, its president, Gregory Zinoviev, abandoned Zetkin’s analysis of the nature and dynamics of fascism by claiming that Social Democracy was itself closely linked to this antiworker movement. “The Social Democratic Party has become a wing of fascism,” he declared. “The fascists are the right hand and the Social Democrats the left hand of the bourgeoisie.”[2] This ultraleft position excluded the possibility of united action involving both Communist and Social Democratic workers—the very error that had crippled resistance to Italian fascism during its rise to power in 1921–22.

Zinoviev also criticized attempts to promote the cause of workers’ unity in action by challenging and, when appropriate, discussing with Social Democrats on a leadership level—an approach endorsed by the Fourth Comintern Congress in 1922 as a necessary component of united-front policy. He also redefined the Comintern’s call for a workers’ and peasants’ government in such a way as to rule out any possibility of a governmental coalition with Social Democrats.

Despite opposition by Zetkin and Karl Radek, another central Comintern leader, Zinoviev’s views were adopted by the 1924 congress.
Rise of Stalinism
The underlying cause of the turnabout in Comintern policy was the rise of a privileged and self-serving bureaucratic layer within the Russian Communist Party and a resulting factional division in its leadership. In 1923, a Left Opposition led by Leon Trotsky and supported by Radek renewed the antibureaucratic struggle launched by Lenin in 1922.[3] Lenin’s political activity had been cut short by a stroke in March 1923; he died in January 1924. While Lenin was incapacitated, Zinoviev was part of a bloc with Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin to take over the Communist Party’s leadership and to oppose Trotsky. By the end of 1923, Trotsky and Radek had been thrust aside from their central leadership role in the Comintern.[4]

Zinoviev, who had initially held doubts about the united-front policy,[5] threw his authority in 1924 behind an ultraleft shift, particularly with regard to Germany. With Lenin gone and Trotsky and Radek sidelined, Zetkin was left as the only leading proponent of united-front policy in the broader Comintern leadership.

The debate at the Communist International’s Fifth Congress focused on drawing a balance sheet of the KPD’s participation in the massive workers’ upsurge in Germany in 1923, which the Comintern central leadership believed could have led to a successful proletarian revolution. After months of intense struggle in Germany, capitalist rule was restabilized by year-end, with the Communist Party in inglorious retreat.

Debate over the causes of this defeat spread to the Russian party. Trotsky and the Left Opposition accused the Comintern Executive (ECCI) of failing to see the revolutionary potential of the situation until it was too late. Zinoviev sought to pin responsibility on the German party’s main leaders, Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer, who like Zetkin were strong advocates of broad united action against fascism.

In 1924 the ECCI under Zinoviev threw its support behind the ultraleft current in Germany led by Ruth Fischer and endorsed its retreat from united-front initiatives. Meanwhile, the Comintern Executive forced all its parties into alignment with the Zinoviev-Kamenev-Stalin “troika” in the Russian party. Zetkin kept silent on the Russian dispute, refusing to endorse the “troika,” but she did speak up on the united-front debate in Germany.
Zetkin at the Fifth Congress
Both Zetkin and Radek took the floor at the Fifth Congress to strongly oppose Zinoviev’s proposals to reverse Comintern positions on the united front and other questions. Most of Zetkin’s two-hour speech was devoted to the defeat in Germany. While making forceful criticisms of the German party’s leadership, she also pointed to the ECCI’s responsibility and argued that the German working class had not been ready in the autumn of 1923 for a showdown struggle for power.

The last half-hour of Zetkin’s speech dealt with the united front, the underlying issue behind the disagreement on fascism. The basic precondition for united-front efforts, she explained, was the Communist Party’s unity, independence, and close ties to the masses. In that framework, negotiations with Social Democratic leaders were sometimes appropriate—provided that we meet with them “not to do them honor” but to “increase the pressure on them toward action” and win “an even broader range of their supporters to our banner.”

Delegates should not reject such leadership meetings on principle, she said. They should hold firm to the decisions of the Fourth Congress (1922) on this point and not be misled by latter-day reinterpretations of them.[6] Despite Zetkin’s appeal, the Fifth Congress endorsed Zinoviev’s proposals.

Although sharply criticized at the congress, Zetkin was still publicly honored by the Comintern in the years that followed as a symbol of revolutionary intransigence. She often penned greetings or appeals of a ceremonial nature, but was not allowed to speak or write publicly on controversial topics. The Communist Women’s Movement and its journal Die Kommunistische Fraueninternationale (The Communist Women’s International), in which she was the driving force, were shut down in 1925 and 1926 respectively.

Zetkin was severely afflicted by illness during the last decade of her life. Her lengthy periods of treatment outside Moscow sometimes served, according to her biographer Tânia Puschnerat, as a form of quarantine to keep her away from important political occasions.[7]

Defending unity in struggle
Zinoviev broke with Stalin in 1925 and went into opposition, joining the next year with Trotsky, Kamenev, and Radek in the United Opposition, which challenged the tightening grip of Stalin’s bureaucratic control in the Soviet Union and his rejection of an internationalist perspective under the guise of building “socialism in one country.”

The Ruth Fischer leadership in the German party (KPD), aligned with Zinoviev, was overturned at the end of 1926. During the interval that followed, Zetkin regained limited freedom of action within the Comintern leadership. In 1927 she became once more a member of the KPD Central Committee; she was removed two years later.

In October 1927, Zetkin sent the KPD Central Committee a powerful defense of the united-front policies she had helped develop in 1921–23. She called on the party to propose conditional support to a Social Democratic government in the German federal state of Hamburg, where the KPD and SPD together held a parliamentary majority, on the basis of an agreed program of measures in workers’ interests.

Zetkin’s letter also defended the KPD’s entry in 1923 into a short-lived SPD-KPD government in the German state of Saxony, which had been sharply attacked within the KPD and the International.

“We can be sure that the broad masses have a quite incorrect view of what such a government could achieve,” she wrote, “but this is all the more reason to call for it.” Otherwise, she believed, the SPD leaders will find it all the easier to reject governing with KPD support and to form a coalition instead with the openly bourgeois parties—its standard procedure during the years of Germany’s 1919–33 Weimar Republic.[8]

At this time, Zetkin was aligned with Nikolai Bukharin, then the Comintern’s president. Zetkin supported Bukharin and Stalin’s harsh reprisals against the United Opposition, going so far as to endorse Trotsky’s expulsion from the Communist Party in November 1927. She did not protest the mass arrests of oppositionists and their banishment to Siberia. She thereby gave encouragement to bureaucratic forces that were soon to turn against Bukharin and solidify Stalin’s absolute rule.[9]

Ultraleft turn
Only one month after Zetkin’s appeal on the united front, a convention of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union initiated a major ultraleft turn in policy. Known as the “Third Period” line, it was based on a schema according to which the first period was the revolutionary upsurge that followed World War I; the second period was the subsequent stabilization of capitalism that followed; the third period supposedly was to be marked by capitalist collapse and revolution.

It served to solidify Stalin’s control by undercutting support for Bukharin as well as to win over and silence individuals sympathetic to Trotsky and the Left Opposition. The new line began the march toward forced collectivization of agriculture, breakneck industrialization, and ever-tightening control by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union.

In Germany, this line meant reviving and intensifying the disastrous policies of the Ruth Fischer period, including rejection of united-front initiatives with the Social Democrats. Stalin made a rare appearance at an ECCI meeting in February 1928 to castigate the “right wing” of the KPD—that is, the forces led by Brandler and associated with Zetkin—as the main danger to the party.

The meeting marked the effective end of united-front policy in the Comintern, blocking the road to a fighting antifascist alliance. A subsequent meeting of delegates from Germany and the Soviet Union to the ECCI, from which Zetkin was excluded, spelled out the transfer of power in the KPD to forces adhering to Stalin’s new line.

Zetkin expressed her anguish in a letter to her son Costia in March 1928: “I ask myself, what to do…. This situation afflicts and torments me.” She wrote German party leader Wilhelm Pieck of her opposition to having such vital questions of party policy “settled by agreements among different parties,” alluding to the Soviet party’s interference in the KPD’s internal life.[10]

When the resolution on Germany came up in the ECCI for ratification the next month, Zetkin alone voted to reject it. She wrote a confidential letter to the KPD leadership explaining her views, which was inexplicably leaked and published the following year in a German non-Communist newspaper.[11]

In the months that followed, a behind-the-scenes factional struggle opened up in the leadership of the Russian party, known since 1925 as the “All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks).” Stalin’s faction, committed to an ultraleft line both internationally and in the Soviet Union, confronted “right oppositionist” forces led by Bukharin.

On July 3, 1929, the Moscow daily Pravda published an article by Zetkin that presented some central themes of her 1923 report on fascism. She submitted the article as a criticism of the draft program prepared for the Comintern congress the following month, whose main author was Bukharin.

Criticizing the draft’s schematic presentation of a “class against class” perspective, Zetkin stressed that the Comintern must unite “all working people and all oppressed classes and peoples.” She regretted the draft program’s inadequate attention to middle layers between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, especially the more educated layers (“intellectuals”).

Also neglected, Zetkin indicated, was the impact of capitalist “rationalization” –increasing mechanization and the displacement of small-scale producers and traders – which was throwing all subordinate social layers into crisis. Demands benefiting women were absent, she pointed out, while the significance of women for the class struggle was acknowledged only for those who were workers or peasants. A German text of Zetkin’s article circulated to Comintern activists internationally.[12]

The Comintern’s Sixth Congress, held in July-August 1928, was the first one attended by Zetkin where she did not speak. In its corridors, Stalin’s supporters campaigned against Bukharin and his international supporters, including Zetkin.

The conflict in the KPD culminated in a historic session of the ECCI on December 19, 1928, where Zetkin confronted Stalin directly. Stalin’s forces demanded expulsion of the KPD “right wing”; Zetkin called for postponement of any disciplinary action until the KPD held a democratic discussion and congress. During this session, Béla Kun, an architect of the ultraleft “March Action” disaster in Germany in 1921, charged Zetkin with “rightism” for opposing his course at that time. In response, Zetkin pointed out that she had joined with Lenin in rallying the world congress against Kun’s ultraleft views. To no avail: the plenum decisions were in step with Kun’s position. Expulsion of the KPD “right” was decided, against the votes of Zetkin, Jules Humbert-Droz, and Angelo Tasca; 6,000 dissidents were forced out of the German party.[13]

Following Stalin’s expulsion of Zetkin’s co-thinkers in the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1928, the internal dispute in the Russian Communist leadership escalated toward Joseph Stalin’s open break with Nikolai Bukharin several months later. Bukharin’s faction was crushed; Bukharin and other leading “right oppositionists” capitulated, admitting their supposed errors. Expelled supporters of Bukharin in Germany organized a new movement, which took the name Communist Party of Germany (Opposition), or KPD(O).

Privately, Zetkin wrote bitterly of the Comintern’s transformation into a mechanism that “sucks in Russian-language directives on one side and shoots them out, translated into various languages, on the other.”[14] Yet she still believed that Communists must work to reform the International, as did her friends in the KPD(O) and also the now-exiled Leon Trotsky and his comrades in the International Left Opposition.

For Zetkin, loyalty to this perspective and to the Soviet Union demanded that she remain in the International, even at the cost of keeping silent on crucial issues. Stalin, for his part, although threatened by Zetkin’s continued defiance, evidently considered the risks flowing from her membership less than those that might follow if she were expelled.

Between October 1929 and March 1930, Zetkin composed a comprehensive memorandum on the crisis in the KPD addressed to the ECCI.[15] Assessing the German party’s erroneous political line, she diagnosed it as a symptom of a more general crisis of the Comintern as a whole. As in the December 1928 ECCI plenum, she compared the party’s ultraleft stance with the notorious “theory of the offensive” that some central ECCI leaders had briefly and disastrously embraced in 1921.[16] Breaking the grip of that error had been the great achievement of the Comintern’s Third Congress (1921). Won through the efforts of Lenin, Trotsky, and Zetkin herself, this victory opened the door to the united-front policy adopted by the Comintern later that year.

Zetkin’s memorandum condemned the destructive role of the Soviet party, which no longer “leads” but merely “dictates” to the International. And for the first and only time, she challenged the Stalin leadership’s policies within the Soviet Union by demanding “extensive documentary material” on developments in the Soviet party and state. Comintern member parties, she said, had the “duty and right to consult on the problems of the Soviet Union in fraternal solidarity with the Russian party.”

Expressions of dissent
Zetkin complained to her son Maxim of the severe censorship and frequent suppression suffered by her writings. Even her name could no longer be mentioned, she said. And yet, by one means or another, her ideas managed to reach a wider audience.

In 1929, after many delays, her Reminiscences of Lenin was published in German. This pamphlet contained a detailed account of her collaboration with Lenin in the Third Congress over issues fundamental to united-front policy.[17]

Zetkin received visits from leaders of the KPD(O) such as Paul Frölich, with whom she agreed on the united front, trade-union unity, the need for internal party democracy, and the need to reform the Comintern. The KPD(O) published four of Zetkin’s private oppositional statements, without eliciting any protest from her.[18] She corresponded with old friends now hostile to the KPD, such as Georg Ledebour. She wrote an obituary of Margarete Wengels, a comrade from wartime revolutionary struggles who later returned to the SPD, which was published in a non-KPD workers’ paper.[19]

While praising the Soviet Union’s achievements, Zetkin did not join in the customary adulation of the Soviet dictator.[20] She expressed her contempt for the Soviet ruler in a private note intended for Bukharin in Moscow, advising him not to let himself be pushed around by Stalin, whom she referred to, using the gendered language of that era, as a “mentally deranged woman who wears men’s pants.”[21]

In 1929, the Russian émigré and SPD press published rumors regarding Zetkin’s supposed persecution by Communist authorities in Moscow. The KPD’s central newspaper, Die Rote Fahne, twice broke its silence regarding Zetkin by publishing her denials of these reports. Her second statement ended in a fashion surely disconcerting to her editors: “As is generally known, my outlook on both tactics and fundamentals stands opposed to the opinion of the ECCI’s majority.”[22]

Although aware of the Comintern’s degeneration, Zetkin maneuvered cautiously and skillfully to maintain her status as a tolerated dissident. In her 1929–30 memorandum, she pledged, “I will break party discipline three times, four times, if it serves the interests of revolution.” But when, in 1931, Stalin assailed the memory of Rosa Luxemburg, for example, Zetkin’s protests of this insult to her longtime friend and comrade circulated only in private letters.[23]

“My greatest affliction,” she told a friend at the time, “is to answer the question: Where does the truth lie? What are my responsibilities to the proletarian revolution? Should I speak out or remain silent?” She paid the price of maintaining her Communist Party membership, which was to speak only a fraction of what she believed.[24]

Seizing an opportunity
Zetkin continued to present aspects of her 1923 analysis of fascism publicly when possible—in a criticism of KPD policy sent to party leader Wilhelm Pieck in March 1932, for example, and in published greetings to an antifascist conference in June.[25] In greeting the KPD’s 1931 campaign for freedom of choice on abortion, she made a public appeal for unity with women in the SPD.[26]

In August 1932, Zetkin seized a chance to speak publicly to a national audience on the need for united action against fascism. To do so she had leave some things unsaid, such as spelling out the need to approach the SPD on the need for a united struggle against fascism. Passages from her text stressing the magnitude of the task the party faced in rousing the masses were deleted from her final text. Nonetheless, confident that she could express the essence of her thinking, she eagerly grasped the opportunity.

The circumstances of the speech were dramatic.

The global depression that broke out in 1929 had hit Germany hard. With its workers’ parties consumed by fratricidal struggle, Hitler’s National Socialists—in eclipse since 1923—quickly grew to be Germany’s largest party. The Nazi vote rose from 2.6% (1928) to 18.3% (1930) and 37.4% (1932). In the July 1932 vote, Zetkin was re-elected to the Reichstag, having been a member since 1920. Seventy-four years old, she was the oldest member of Germany’s parliament and as such had the right to formally open its first session.

The Nazi press bristled with vile threats against her as a “Communist Jew,” a “slut” (Goebbels), and a “traitor.” The KPD received a Nazi threat to assault her on the floor of the Reichstag. But when her party’s Central Committee asked whether she could open the Reichstag session, she responded with characteristic defiance, “I’ll get there, dead or alive.” Driven incognito into Berlin, she slipped into a safe house. Her biographer Gilbert Badia describes the ensuing drama at the Reichstag as follows:

“Clara Zetkin was very weak, subject to fainting fits, and almost blind. On August 30, before a Reichstag crammed with Nazi deputies in SA and SS uniforms, two Communist deputies helped the old woman to mount the speakers’ platform. She spoke at first with a barely audible voice, but little by little her voice strengthened and grew passionate.”[27]

The final part of her talk reasserted the essence of her long-suppressed opinion on the urgency to forge unity against fascism.

Zetkin’s August 30, 1932, speech in the German Reichstag (excerpt)

Zetkin’s courageous call for antifascist action, made in Germany’s parliament less than a year before her death, stands as a fitting tribute to her lifetime of revolutionary struggle and to her legacy as a beacon for future generations.—JR

Our most urgent task today is to form a united front of all working people in order to turn back fascism. All the differences that divide and shackle us—whether founded on political, trade-union, religious, or ideological outlooks—must give way before this imperious historical necessity.

All those who are menaced, all those who suffer, all those who desire freedom must join the united front against fascism and its representatives in government. Working people must assert themselves against fascism. That is the urgent and indispensable precondition for a united front against economic crisis, imperialist war and its causes, and the capitalist mode of production. The revolt of millions of laboring men and women in Germany against hunger, deprivation, fascist murder, and imperialist war expresses the imperishable destiny of producers the world over.

This destiny, shared among us around the world, must find expression through forging an iron-like community of struggle of all working people in every sphere ruled by capitalism. It must also unite them with their vanguard, the liberated brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union. Strikes and uprisings in various countries abroad are blazing fires showing those in struggle in Germany that they are not alone.

Everywhere the disinherited and the defeated are beginning to advance toward taking power. Millions of women in Germany are still subjected to the chains of sexual slavery and thereby also to the most oppressive form of class slavery. They must not be absent from the united front of working people now taking shape in Germany.

The youth who want to blossom and mature must fight in the very front ranks. Today they face only the prospect of corpse-like military obedience and exploitation in the ranks of obligatory labor service. All those who produce through intellectual labor, whose skill and will augment social well-being and culture but can find no expression in the existing bourgeois order—they too belong in the united front.

The united front must embrace all those who are dependent on wages or salaries or otherwise must pay tribute to capitalism, for it is they who both sustain capitalism and are its victims.

I am opening this session of the Reichstag in fulfillment of my duty as honorary chair and in the hope that despite my present infirmities I may yet have the good fortune to open, as honorary chair, the first congress of workers’ councils of a Soviet Germany.[28]


[1]. Copyright (c) 2017 Mike Taber and John Riddell. The text in Fighting Fascism has been slightly modified to adapt it to blog format.
[2]. Protokoll Fünfter Kongress der Kommunistischen Internationale (Hamburg: Carl Hoym Nachf., 1924), pp. 66–67.
[3]. From late 1922 on, Lenin had initiated a broad fight within the Soviet leadership around a number of issues, including the national question, defense of the monopoly of foreign trade, and the alliance with the peasantry. At the root of many of these questions was the growing bureaucratization of the Communist Party, whose general secretary was Stalin. To wage this fight, Lenin had formed a bloc with Trotsky, urging him to champion their common positions on these questions within the party leadership, and he had called for Stalin to be removed as general secretary.
[4]. For Trotsky’s view of these controversies, see Leon Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1996), part 2, section 4, pp. 107–15.
[5]. In his report to the June 1923 ECCI meeting, Zinoviev admitted, “At the time, to be sure, I did have reservations” about the united-front policy. In Mike Taber, ed., The Communist International at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International Executive Committee, 1922–1923 (Historical Materialism Book Series, 2017).
[6]. Protokoll Fünfter Kongress der Kommunistischen Internationale, pp. 335–39. For the record of the Fourth Congress, see Toward the United Front, Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International.
[7]. Tânia Puschnerat, Clara Zetkin: Bürgerlichkeit und Marxismus (Essen: Klartext, 2003), p. 296.
[8]. For the text of Zetkin’s letter, see https://www.marxists.org/deutsch/archiv/zetkin/1927/10/zkkpd.html
[9]. Puschnerat, pp. 305–6.
[10]. Gilbert Badia, Clara Zetkin, féministe sans frontières (Paris: Les Éditions ouvrières, 1993), pp. 276–78.
[11]. Badia. p. 278. For the text of Zetkin’s letter, see Beiträge zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung, 6 (1991), pp. 787–88.
[12]. Zetkin’s 3,500-word text was published in Internationale Presse-Korrespondenz, vol. 8, no. 64, pp. 1172–73 and no. 65, pp. 1189–90. For a quite different criticism of the draft program, see Leon Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin.
[13]. Puschnerat, pp. 364-66. The entire proceedings of this ECCI meeting are found in Tânia Ünlüdag, “Die Tragödie einer Kämpferin für die Arbeiterbewegung,”  IWK 33 (1997), pp. 337–47. For the controversy involving Kun and Zetkin in 1921, see To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International.
[14]. Tânia Puschnerat, Clara Zetkin: Bürgerlichkeit und Marxismus (Essen: Klartext, 2003), p. 370.
[15]. Puschnerat, pp. 370–72, 377, 380.
[16]. The “theory of the offensive” was advanced by majority leaders in the KPD following the adventurist “March Action” of 1921 to justify their policies in launching that action and to propose that such policies continue. The theory called on Communists to radicalize their slogans and initiate minority actions that could sweep the hesitant workers into action.
[17]. Zetkin’s record of her discussions with Lenin on the Third Congress is included in To the Masses, pp. 1137–48. The entire text of Zetkin’s Reminiscences of Lenin can be found on Marxists Internet Archive.
[18]. Puschnerat, p. 381.
[19]. Puschnerat, p. 378.
[20]. One exception has been noted. In 1932 Zetkin assented to her editor’s insertion into a message of greetings she had written of a reference to Stalin as an “outstanding and brilliant leader.” See Puschnerat, p. 384.
[21]. Gilbert Badia, Clara Zetkin, féministe sans frontières (Paris: Les Éditions ouvrières, 1993), p. 288–89, Puschnerat p. 374.
[22]. Puschnerat, p. 376.
[23]. Zetkin had defended Luxemburg at the March 1926 ECCI plenum against similar attacks made in the German party. Her speech was published in the record of the plenum.
[24]. Puschnerat, p. 377; Badia, pp. 282, 290.
[25]. Badia, pp. 300–301.
[26]. Badia, p. 264.
[27]. Badia, pp. 302–3.
[28]. Translated from https://www.marxists.org/deutsch/archiv/zetkin/1932/08/alterspraes.html. For the entire text of Zetkin’s Reichstag speech, see Mike Jones and Ben Lewis, ed., Clara Zetkin: Letters and Writings (London: Merlin Press, 2015), pp. 169–73, or Philip S. Foner, ed., Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings (New York: International Publishers, 1984), pp. 170–75.
Clara Zetkin John Riddell
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Trotsky in Cuba, 2019-Paul Le Blanc

Posted by admin On May - 16 - 2019 Comments Off on Trotsky in Cuba, 2019-Paul Le Blanc


More than one friend has expressed the hope that I would write a report on my experience in attending an international conference on Leon Trotsky held in Havana, May 6-8, 2019 – so I have felt even more compulsion to craft such a report than I would have otherwise. Since I have come down here earlier than the dates of the conference, I find that I have time to begin shaping such an account as I am living through what I describe. My take on all of this is influenced, naturally, by my understanding of the Cuban Revolution – which can be found in “Origins and Trajectory of the Cuban Revolution,” in my collection Revolutionary Studies (Chicago: Haymarket 2017), first published in the journal Against the Current, January/February 2007 (which can be found online https://solidarity-us.org/atc/126/p319). My experience now seems to me consistent with what I wrote then.

With my excitement somewhat subdued (after all, I have turned 72 years old on the very day of this journey), I made my way to the fabled land of my radical youth – where I have never been before, this land of revolutionary mystique and alluring rhythms, José Martí’s green and crimson verses of “Guantanamera” and the wondrous sounds of The Buena Vista Social Club, a land embraced by foreigners like Ernest Hemingway and Che Guevara, a central element in my own political formation and in my evolving intellectual landscape. It seemed unreal that I would be making this journey. But now I was finally making it – with a persistent anxiety that somehow, at one point or another, I would be prevented from reaching this wondrous, contradictory land where I now find myself.

An additional magical quality involves the circumstances of this first visit to Cuba – the fact that I have been invited to make a presentation at an international conference on the life, ideas, and influence of Leon Trotsky. This is a first, running counter to significant elements of anti-Trotskyism that have been prevalent in sectors of the Cuban Communist Party since the 1960s. Yet there have been counter-tendencies – for example, efforts by the late Celia Hart (daughter of two historic leaders of the Cuban Revolution, Armando Hart and Haydée Santamaría) to popularize the ideas of Trotsky in her homeland.

More recently, there has been the incredible contribution to twenty-first century literature, Leonardo Padura’s The Man Who Loved Dogs, referring to three men – Leon Trotsky, his Stalinist assassin Ramón Mercader, and a fictional down-and-out Cuban writer/veterinarian who becomes acquainted with the aging Mercader who lived in Cuba years after the killing. This magnificently written novel wrestles with the meaning of Communism – with Trotsky representing the luminous hopes and Mercader representing the horror and betrayal. Most significantly, this truly subversive work is not a piece of émigré literature, but a prize-winning contribution by a well-known writer still living in Cuba. I had nursed the hope that Padura might make an appearance at the conference, but was told that he is currently in Japan.

So here I am in Cuba, experiencing contradictory realities in this amazing land. After giving a taste of those, I will focus on at least some of which happened at the Trotsky conference.

Experiencing Cuban realities


Even with the limitation of being only in Havana, it is clear that this is an amazingly beautiful country, a tropical island embraced by the Caribbean Sea, with such sunny (sometimes all-too-hot) days kissed by cooling breezes in the evenings. Modern and air-conditioned buildings in Havana co-exist with picturesque older buildings, some nicely renovated, some badly in need of renovation, still others seemingly beyond renovation. The ongoing hostility of Cuba’s powerful Northern neighbor – whose military threats blend with persistent and brutal efforts at economic strangulation – has combined with the severance of a life-line from the now collapsed Communist Bloc, to ensure a plummeting of the Cuban people’s quality of life.

The quality of life may be undermined, but it is hardly obliterated. One is struck, in this urban landscape, by the bright colors (some faded in the non-tourist areas), as well as by the fact that things have been run-down but persistently and creatively refurbished. Very early morning, the water was off, another time the electricity interrupted, but not for long. In this self-defined socialist society – with health care, education, housing, food and jobs seemingly guaranteed to all, by a government dominated by the Cuban Communist Party – one can see the prevalence, nonetheless, of a vibrant network, in fact a seeming prevalence, of small private enterprises. At the same time, there are maddening restrictions especially for those who have become addicted to the internet. The complex dialectic of governmental policies – historically aggressive ones from the US state, and defensive ones (some understandable, some not so much) from the Cuban state result in restricted access to the internet. It is not impossible to get online, but it is not easy. Early on I simply decided simply to avoid the frustrations and reconnect to the world-wide web when I get back to the United States.

The centrality of tourism to the Cuban economy today – though assuming less exploitative and extravagant forms than what existed before the Revolution – naturally impacts culture and human relations. There is a pronounced friendliness to the many foreigners walking around in Havana, sometimes tinged by an overly-friendly hustle: a wonderful place to dine right around the corner, a chance to get black market cigars, an opportunity to get candy for one’s grandchildren, and sometimes more. And there is, of course, the double currency system – a certain form of Cuban peso for tourists (peso convertible), equivalent in value to a US dollar, worth much more than the regular Cuban peso (peso cubano). Meals at restaurants, trinkets, books, etc. are very reasonably priced for a typical US consumer, but they are beyond the reach of the average Cuban who must subsist on the peso cubano of much lesser value. Yet the average Cuban can secure fruits, vegetables, meats, at primitive markets, bread at bakeries, and medicines in pharmacies for inexpensive peso cubano rates. The fact remains that a more or less middle-income person from the blue-collar/white-collar US working class becomes privileged, although the tourist dollars one spends are vital to the health of the Cuban economy.

The several highways, the many crisscrossed avenues and streets, alleyways and plazas of Havana are animated with the traffic of cars (with many cacharros, ingeniously overhauled and brilliantly painted US vehicles from the pre-revolutionary 1950s), taxis and buses, bicycle-powered cabs, semi-silent motor scooters, and masses of pedestrians in this vibrant city of 2.1 million people. The populace seems, overall, relaxed and generous, and the overall pace of life seems free and easy. This is not a terrible city to get lost in – there are many helpful people, and finding one’s way often leads to encounters with fascinating and pleasant sights. It feels safe, even when one is walking at night on fairly dark and narrow streets. There are plenty of pot-holes, and sometimes smells emanating from dumpsters and piles of garbage bags (huge garbage trucks come around regularly), but such things are not overwhelming and are partially offset by lovely parks and playgrounds. There are economic (and political) limitations, certainly relative scarcity, relative poverty – but without the levels of hunger, illness, illiteracy, despair that have been evident to me elsewhere. This is the triumph and legacy of the Cuban Revolution.

I am struck by the multiracial, interracial, bi-racial blendings, reflected not simply through the genetic make-up of the multitudes of individuals all around me, but especially in the dynamism of blended cultures, with often truly beautiful young men and women making wonderful music (jazz, Afro-Cuban, salsa, more) in the many cafés and on the streets, with people of all ages sometimes breaking into dance. The pulsating national culture is punctuated, no less in Havana than elsewhere, by street graffiti art, but also flows in abundance in the richly layered collections – reflecting multiple styles and sensibilities – of the Museo Nacionale de Belle Artes. Here, and not surprisingly in the neighboring Museo de la Revolución, but also throughout Havana, pride in and identification with the Cuban Revolution seem to be essential elements in the culture – certainly fostered by the government, but also freely, consistently, and sometimes enthusiastically embraced by many, many people. The prevalence of revolutionary symbols seems to have little in common with the bureaucratic inundation of such stuff in the restrictive societies that Eastern Europeans had to endure under Communist Party dictatorships. Here things seem to be open, vibrant, animated by an incredible energy and creativity, by nourishing humor, and by stubborn life-force.

Some of us are staying in lodgings that are part of a network – again – of private enterprises known as casas particulares, in ways similar to bed-and-breakfasts. The people who conscientiously oversee the apartments some of us live in are very down-to-earth working people in very casual dress – two sisters and a brother. Aleida (age 74), who seems to be in charge, speaks some English, and makes breakfasts (plenty of fruit, an egg, toast, coffee) for Flo, or Florivaldo Menezes Filho – a Brazilian musician and independent Trotskyist, a delightful comrade, a youthful 57-year-old – and myself; her very outgoing sister Juana (72) makes casual conversation with us in Spanish (though one morning she had to go out early for choir practice), and her older brother Eduardo (76) invariably walks to and fro, for the most part silently, tending to some task or another. Their father was an electrician, their mother a homemaker, and the family supported the triumph of Fidel’s July 26th Movement. Almost sixty years ago, at the time of the US-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, Eduardo was only 16, but was part of the force that defeated the invaders at Playa Girón. When Aleida tells us this, Eduardo pauses, his face suddenly animated with pride, his eyes flashing as he affirms that this is so, adding a detail or two. Aleida also explained to me that the very appealing original art works on the walls are from a longtime artist friend, Carlos Guzmán, and that the many photos in her living room are of her three grandchildren (two living in Spain, one in Havana) and her handsome son now living in Chile. Juana speaks with pride about her own son, a doctor, and her now twenty-something grandson.

Of special interest to me, naturally, are Havana’s younger people, of whom I certainly see many. I am staying across the way from a school, and especially in the morning I hear animated sounds of many children. Sometimes I see students, in well-kept school uniforms, which initially misled me when a Canadian labor historian, a good friend (and now temporary neighbor) Bryan Palmer and I were visiting the Museo Nacionale de Belle Artes. A contingent of well-behaved and very engaged young people entered, wearing uniforms that included red kerchiefs, and I thought I was perhaps seeing a Communist-connected youth group. I asked several of them the name of their group, and some of them held up five fingers – saying “Five” and “Cinco.” Just that. It seemed a very odd name for an organization, until I realized these were fifth graders on a field trip to the art museum.

It is precisely the enthusiasm of younger people that brought me down to Cuba so much earlier than I otherwise would have – traveling on my April 30 birthday in order to participate in Havana’s massive May Day parade. This was at the urgent, almost insistent, invitation of the young militant who has organized the Trotsky conference, Frank García Hernández. He is 36 years old, but to me he still qualifies as one the Havana’s “younger people.” He definitely has the energy and buoyancy of youth. Frank is an earnest and very knowledgeable researcher at the Cuban Institute of Cultural Research Juan Marinello. He insists that he is not a Trotskyist. Rather, he believes what Trotsky offers must be integrated into the enriched and renewed body of Cuban Marxist thought, animated by a revolutionary internationalism. He sees such a process as essential for the future of Cuba.

Frank’s generous and soaring visions often seem to outpace the material realities and practical possibilities. I am worried, based on several experiences, that the organization of this specific conference may suffer from such tendencies, and from the possibility that Frank is trying to do too much by himself, with insufficient back-up from friends and comrades. We will see – the conference is still two days in the future as of this writing.

At the same time, some of Frank’s inclinations go very much in the right direction, such as his insistence that it would be best if I came to participate with many thousands of buoyant Cubans in the massive May Day march. Here indeed was a magnificent outpouring of youth, as well as non-youth, and the mood seemed a blend of immense national pride and exuberant support for the revolutionary ideals that had animated the coming to power of the compañeros of the July 26th Movement in 1959 and the radical course charted by Fidel and others in the years afterward. Surging waves of marchers – cheering, singing, shouting rhythmic slogans – carried a multiplicity of signs and banners, as well as Cuban flags and red flags as well. An especially vociferous and large contingent of medical students, with other student contingents as well from various schools, contingents from workplaces and unions, working people of various ages – but especially the youth – from the neighborhoods, and bringing up the rear a very large and powerful contingent of soldiers.

Frank held aloft a large red flag with hammer and sickle – signifying the alliance and power of workers and peasants – as he led our little contingent of early conference arrivals, along with a small cluster of Cuban friends and comrades, including his very smart and outspoken young wife Lisbeth (a journalism student) who wore a big cast on her broken leg and was being pushed in a wheelchair, holding a patchwork banner containing the flags of many nations. What for me was an incredibly remarkable development was the fact that we found ourselves in the midst of a gay liberation contingent – its members (gays and their allies) exultingly waving large and little rainbow flags signifying gay rights. Frank enthusiastically combined a large rainbow flag on the same pole as the red flag, and all of us accepted the smaller flags being handed out to us and joined with the hundreds of others, mostly young women and men, many seeming to be students, who were waving them as they sang and chanted and danced.

Despite the enthusiasm, not all in this May Day celebration were supportive. Some onlookers cheered our rainbow contingent, but others definitely did not. In the military contingent a young woman took one of the little rainbow flags, handing it to a somewhat older comrade or family member in an officer’s uniform, and he looked at her askance as she giggled at her little joke. The fact remains that such an open and substantial gay rights manifestation within the May Day march is hugely significant in a country where persecution of homosexuality had been all-too-prevalent in past decades.

Of course, one cannot live by demonstrations and political struggle alone. Last night Bryan and I went to a large club where the drinks were good but not too expensive, and the big band sound created by very professional musicians really got the place jumping. Especially impressive were two wonderful dancers, a relatively young man and woman, each gorgeous, smart, and sexy – performers with a delicious sense of humor who got many of the customers (except for cowards such as me) on the dance floor. It was great fun.

On the following day it was time, at long last, to engage with the Caribbean. Flo and I took a forty-minute bus ride to the beach. The water was clear turquoise, no waves, not too cold, but luxuriously refreshing. It costs only a single peso cubano to go each way on the bus, and the bus was packed. The trip out there wasn’t too bad, but the return trip was even better after the revitalizing experience.

By the day before the conference, it seemed clear to me that the conference is likely to be a success. We had a space (fortunately one that would be air-conditioned), and there was now a dramatic influx into Havana of the many and diverse scheduled speakers bristling with knowledge, ideas, interpretations, analyses, and dynamic personalities, and having things to say. It was a given that there would not be enough time for them to say everything they would want to (and at least many of them were sufficiently experienced to know that would be so), but I still felt some worry that more might be packed into the conference than could be contained in its three days.

Cuba’s first international academic meeting on Trotsky


The day before the May 6-9 conference was to begin, preparations were made in a fine large room housed within the beautiful, Mexican oriented Museo de Beníto Juarez for the next day’s sessions. Conference organizer Frank García Hernández and a team from the Museo Casa de León Trotsky (headed by its energetic new director, Gabriela Pérez Noriega) were busily putting up beautiful banners and an excellent photo exhibit. Chairs were set up, there was a relatively good sound-system being put in place. It seemed to me that things were looking good.

Omens seemed encouraging. The sun was shining reassuringly, and Frank’s wife Lisbeth, recently been afflicted with a broken leg, was out of her cast, able to walk and preparing to participate fully in the conference. As it turned out, the first day of the conference had both its triumphant and problematical aspects.

Simply the fact that such a conference on Leon Trotsky was taking place in Havana constituted an amazing achievement, guaranteed to have an intellectual ripple-effect and contribute to the further development of a critical-minded Marxism, within Cuba and beyond Cuba. One of the best qualities of this conference, as with many others that I have enjoyed attending, was the opportunity for informal and very meaningful interactions among activist scholars. Because of space restrictions, attendance was on an invitation-only basis, with the number of applications far exceeding the 100 or so who were in attendance. (I believe about 190 applications could not be granted.) There were about 40 Cubans, and then substantial numbers of Latin Americans (many – a vibrant contingent – from Brazil, also from Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Puerto Rico), a few from the United States and Canada, a handful of Europeans. Some were seasoned veterans, many were young.

On the other hand, there were a number of complications, some certainly related to the relative inexperience of conference organizers, but many simply being unavoidable given the limitation of resources – due especially to Cuba’s impoverished conditions, and perhaps also to the disinterest, in some cases maybe even hostility, of certain entities having resources. And yet there was enough support within Cuba’s institutions that, combined with the very hard work especially of Frank but also of others, ensured the conference’s success.

One of the problematical aspects was the fact that initially there was a single very capable and hard-working translator who was able to do only serial translations from English to Spanish and Spanish to English. Fortunately, a couple of conference participants were able to pitch in to help with the translation efforts. Still, the absence of simultaneous translation forced many speakers (already restricted to 20-minute time limits) – on the spur of the moment and as best we could – to cut our talks by a third or half, with some inevitably running over time. This, in turn, ran roughshod over the schedule, which was consequently being revised as the conference unfolded.

In what follows, I will offer, more or less in order, a detailed summary – as best I can – of the presentations at the conference (excluding special events: greetings read aloud from Trotsky’s grandson, video greetings from Alan Wood, special presentations related to just-published books by or about Trotsky, etc.).

Day 1


After greetings from the very supportive director of Museo de Beníto Juarez and also from Frank, the first session began (only 30 minutes late), chaired by Frank. Entitled “Trotsky: The Revolution Against the Bureaucracy,” it included: Eric Toussaint, Robert Brenner, Suzi Weissman and I.

Toussaint (associated with the Fourth International) began with a sweeping overview of the Lenin/Trotsky collaboration in the Russian Revolution and in efforts to push back against the growing bureaucratic dictatorship, and then of the opposition that Trotsky continued to lead in the struggle of what was beginning to crystallize as Stalinism – all of which represented part of the revolutionary-democratic legacy within Marxism that has also been rightly associated with Rosa Luxemburg.

I noted Trotsky’s assertion that Stalin represented a more serious assault on the socialist and communist workers’ movements than Hitler – the Nazi leader’s assaults were from the outside, whereas Stalin’s were from within, with practices that would pollute, disorient and discredit the struggle for socialism. He went on to discuss the resistance in Soviet Russia of Left Oppositionists associated with Trotsky, especially their heroic struggles in the face of certain destruction in 1937-38, inside the Stalinist gulag. Referring to Trotsky’s analysis of the Soviet bureaucracy and related theory of permanent revolution, and to the program of the Left Opposition – explications of these were dropped from the talk for time reasons – he emphasized their relevance for today. [Le Blanc’s presentation is appended at the conclusion of this article.]

Brenner apologized in advance for what was about to happen – knowing that he had insufficient time to do what he had intended. He proceeded to use up most of his 20 minutes by offering a capable presentation of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. This drew a round of applause, but it turned out to be only preliminary remarks for his main argument. Acknowledging that he was out of time, he went on to provide a quick summary of the argument that he had intended to make – which took another twenty minutes, particularly because of some translation difficulties. He suggested that Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution had proved more than adequate up to 1917, but not so much afterward. He suggested that the major contradiction within the new Soviet Republic after 1917 was between workers’ power and peasant power (although what this meant was, for many, not made clear). He asserted that the basic analysis of the peasantry among the various Bolshevik current missed the fundamentally non-capitalist nature of the peasantry as such, and that – among other things – this had created an obstacle to the ability of Trotsky and Bukharin to join together in opposing Stalin – with Trotsky wrongly believing that Bukharin’s soft policy toward the peasants would tilt in the direction of empowering the rich peasants, who would constitute the base for a capitalist restoration. For that matter, Stalin and others among the Bolsheviks were also inclined to view the peasants with suspicion, as potentially a class enemy – with murderous consequences when there was a shift to the forced collectivization of the land in 1929-1930.

Weissman offered a penetrating examination of the vibrancy and breakdown of the relationship between Leon Trotsky and Victor Serge. Trotsky was largely to blame, in part due to an isolation from strong co-thinkers and from involvement in mass struggles (a point buttressed by a quote from Serge’s recently published notebooks), resulting in impaired judgment. Serge, she seems to feel, was in the right about pretty much everything. Another factor was the infiltration of Trotskyist ranks by the Stalinist secret service, and the disruptive dirty tricks such agents employed to turn Trotskyists against each other. She also acknowledged the development of actual political disagreements between the Serge and Trotsky as a factor in their fracturing relations – although time prevented her from elaborating on these. She emphasized the importance of the two men’s contributions to the revolutionary cause, and that the cause was weakened by their split. (In the all-too-brief discussion, Bryan Palmer took the floor to suggest Serge’s and Weissman’s contention regarding Trotsky’s isolation is overstated, citing as an example the extensive and ongoing discussion and collaboration with leading militants of the US Socialist Workers Party as being essential in Trotsky’s development of documents for the founding conference of the Fourth International.)

The first panel – all of which was quite interesting to me (perhaps because I was a panelist) – set a pattern that at least one conference participant with whom I spoke was quite critical of. Following that pattern, most of the conference sessions went significantly over time, involving what became for some an overwhelming number of presentations (many of them short or even truncated, some stretching out to be rather long) with all too little time for discussion – and sometimes there was no discussion time at all. The critical participant argued that it would have been better to have a pre-determined and more planned-out selection of significantly fewer and more substantial presentations, with more time allocated for critical discussion.

I must confess that it was difficult for me to give the second session’s presentations adequate attention and fair evaluation, perhaps because of a sudden energy drain caused by my no longer having to be concerned about my own presentation. The panel was a reorganized merger of portions of two different panels, with a very heavy concentration of people who seemed to me to have a relationship to one or another relatively small but pure-minded Trotskyist group. For me it had a droning quality – some assured me that was caused by the acoustics in the room – punctuated by a little liveliness here and there, but with very frequent intoning of factional references in a couple of talks, and seemingly innumerable repetition of words like “the Pabloites” and “Posadas” and I’m not sure what else. (Pablo was a major figure in the Fourth International during a fierce factional conflict in the 1950s, and Posadas led a somewhat divisive Latin American current influential in the late 1950s and early 1960s.) A veteran Trotskyist from the post-World War II period that we were being lectured about, old enough to be most of the panelists’ grandmother, leaned over to me, shaking her head with disgust: “I lived through that – they don’t know what they’re talking about.” But it must be stressed that I was not able to give serious attention to what was presented (some of which, I am told, was quite good): Gabriel García on the image of Trotsky in historiography of perestroika (1986-91), drawing from his recent book of essays, Trotsky in the Mirror of History; Emanuele Saccarelli and Latha Varadajan on Lenin, Trotsky, and the theory of imperialism; A.M. Gittlitz on “the catastrophic trend” in Trotskyism; Marcio Lauria Monteiro on the international Trotskyist movement and the post-war revolutions.

A third panel was postponed to the following day.

Day 2


The initial panel of the day contained presentations that attempted to cover far more than could be accommodated in the amount of time allotted.

Presentations by two young Brazilian comrades (friends who were collaborating in their efforts), both on fascinating topics, would have required a half a day for adequate presentation and discussion. Clara de Freitas Figueiredo utilized slides to give a sense of the Soviet artistic avant-garde – Mayakovsky, Rodschenko, Eisenstein and others, combined in a radical artistic grouping, the Left Front of the Arts, referred to as LEF. LEF defined artistic realism as dealing with the materiality of the construction of a work, not as any attempt of an artistic work to create the illusion of reality. She asserted, without time to make her case, that concerns of LEF’s concerns coincided with cultural issues that Trotsky dealt with in his essays of the early 1920s, Problems of Everyday Life. She also argued that the quasi-religious cult of Lenin, that developed after his death (despite the opposition of Lenin’s widow Krupskaya, as well as Trotsky and some others) had a profound and “liturgical” cultural impact that – if I understood her correctly – was a thorny issue with which the avant-garde had to deal, but there was insufficient time for this idea to be developed clearly.

No less frustrating was the inability (given the time constraints) of the next speaker, Marcela Fleury, to develop her fascinating thesis on the correspondence between Eisenstein’s first major film, “Strike” (1925), with Trotsky’s theorizations of uneven and combined development and permanent revolution. She also utilized slides but would have been better served by showing clips from the film – for which, of course, there would not have been time. She appropriately emphasized the actual historical context of the film – which included worker dissatisfaction with the capitalistic impacts of the New Economic Policy, and also debates in the Communist International on the possibility of bourgeois-democratic revolution in China (positing two separate and distinct “democratic” and “socialist” stages of revolution – in contrast to Trotsky’s theory). She argued that Eisenstein’s film – contrasting the collectivism and solidarity associated with the working class and both the individualism and selfishness associated with the capitalist class, and the incompatibility of the two – connected with the contemporary sentiments and debates in Soviet Russia, tilting in Trotsky’s direction.

The others on the panel were more successful in dealing with the time constraints.

Armagan Tulunay gave a very capable presentation on Trotsky’s extremely productive years in his Turkish exile after being expelled from the Soviet Union – maintaining contacts in the USSR, launching the Russian-language Bulletin of the Opposition, extending the global reach of the Left Opposition to a proliferating number of countries, developing ongoing analyses and commentary on world events, and writing the classic works My Life, History of the Russian Revolution, and Permanent Revolution. She then focused on the development of Trotskyist influence within the Turkish left – with an especially intriguing discussion of what appeared to be impacts on the thought and work of the great Turkish Communist and poet Nazim Hikmet, whose positions and poetry veered away from Stalinist perspectives, more consistent with those of Trotsky at various points. She noted that Hikmet expressed anti-Stalinist views well before the Khrushchev revelations of 1956, and that – after years of exile in the USSR – visiting Cuba in the early 1960s was a revitalizing experience for him.

Helmut Dahmer’s low-key presentation suggested an “aesthetic relationship” between Trotsky and the great culture critic Walter Benjamin (who influenced many in German intellectual circles, including those around the Frankfurt School, various other Marxist intellectuals, and particularly the great playwright Bertolt Brecht). He traced the life of Benjamin while noting striking similarities (despite the obvious and dramatic differences) between Benjamin and Trotsky, insisting that there were affinities between the two. Both felt the need to draw on historical materials to find a way out of the labyrinth of the present. While Trotsky was probably unaware of Benjamin’s work, Dahmer offered interesting points on the influence on Benjamin of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and writings on Britain.

Cultural motifs – and also the unfortunate patterns in the conference indicated earlier – were abundantly present in the next panel.

Flo Menezes offered remarks on Trotsky and art, literature and culture. He began with a focus on the 1930 suicide of the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky, and Trotsky’s comments that linked this act to negative pressures in the increasingly bureaucratic-authoritarian atmosphere of Soviet Russia. This led to an assault on that analysis by Anatoly Lunacharsky, a highly cultured Bolshevik of some prominence who was adapting to (and thereby distorting himself) the now-dominant Stalinism. Discussing Marxist conceptualizations of ideology and knowledge, Menezes emphasized that art and politics cannot be understood in the same way. Basing himself on the work of Marx, Trotsky was able to advance theorizations Marx had never had an opportunity to develop. Terming the Stalinist-backed artistic development of “Socialist Realism” anti-Marxist, Trotsky – while not uncritical of surrealism – allied himself with surrealists in efforts to push back Stalinism’s deadening cultural incursions. Menezes was about to enter into discussion about the Brazilian Marxist theorist and Left Oppositionist Marío Pedrosa – at which he ran out of time and concluded his presentation. Fortunately, the next speaker – Edson Luiz de Oliviera – dealt with Pedrosa, with a focus on the Brazilian Trotskyist’s appreciation for the work of the great German artist Käthe Kollwitz. Yunier Mena engaged, in his presentation on The Revolution Betrayed, with cultural developments in the early Soviet Republic up to the mid-1930s. The one presentation on this mostly cultural panel that was not like the others came from Dan La Botz, who offered an energetic and lengthy biography of Boris Souvarine, a short-term Left Oppositionist coming out of the French Communist Party who first supported, then clashed with, then broke from Trotsky in the course of the 1920s. La Botz’s contention was that Souvarine was superior to Trotsky in regard to his analysis of the Russian peasantry, his analysis of the Soviet bureaucracy, and his positions on democracy in the Soviet Union and the Communist movement.

The next panel on Trotsky’s theoretical impact was as uneven as many others – some well-developed and clearly presented presentations, others seeming more like a work-in-progress. What the session did not amount to, however, was a systematic overview of Trotsky’s theoretical work; instead, consistent with the organization of the conference as a whole, there were a number of different presentations reflecting the particular inclinations of the presenter – although many were certainly of interest (at least to me).

Two speakers explored Trotsky’s impact on and interconnection with Italian revolutionaries. Antonella Marazzi explained that her presentation was part of a bigger project in which she is engaged. Noting that Lenin and Trotsky became famous throughout Italy with the Russian Revolution of 1917, she referenced the massive working-class upsurge that rocked Italy in 1919-1920 and noted that splits in the country’s large Socialist Party resulted in the formation of a substantial Italian Communist Party. Prominent figures in this included Amadeo Bordiga (a very influential, but somewhat ultra-left figure), Giuseppe Serrati (a left-wing leader of the Socialist Party, drawn to the new Communists, but not fitting easily among them), and ultimately the important personage of Antonio Gramsci. The rise and onslaught of Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement naturally constituted a destructive context for subsequent developments. This occurred in the period when both Trotsky and Bordiga were being marginalized in the Communist movement (the speaker felt that Bordiga’s marginalization was partly self-inflicted). Unity explorations between the two came to nothing, as Trotsky’s overtures ran into the wall of Bordiga’s sectarianism. Gramsci, on the other hand, developed some positions similar to Trotsky’s, but he never chose to connect with the Trotskyist movement. The speaker went on to discuss the leading Italian Trotskyist, Pietro Tresso, and then her time was up. The question of Trotsky and Gramsci was revisited by the next speaker, Robert Massari, who emphasized that Gramsci was far from being the abstract theorist presented in various academic studies. Rather, his militant theorizations were inseparable from his role as an activist leader in the Communist movement. In the complex swirl of the 1920s, Gramsci momentarily approached Trotsky’s position, then pulled back. But he never became a Stalinist, and from prison he absolutely rejected the disastrously sectarian “third period” orientation of Stalinism.

The other speakers on the panel were more Trotsky-focused. Alex Steiner offered the most thorough and elaborated presentation, providing an informative and detailed discussion of Trotsky’s philosophical and theoretical notebooks, and how these connected to a wide range of subjects – from Hegelian dialectics and evolutionary theory, aspects of the natural and physical sciences, and more contemporary political issues of the revolutionary movement. Niloofar Moazzami and Morgana Romao focused, respectively, on Trotsky’s political theorizations regarding the dynamics of revolution and the development of the Soviet bureaucracy. Moazzami’s attention was drawn to Trotsky’s classic History of the Russian Revolution, which showed the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy resulted in the unstable alliance and growing conflict between two power-blocs, one dominated by bourgeois forces, the other consisting of a worker-peasant combination. She then suggested the value of comparing Trotsky’s analysis with works of other scholarship on revolution, such as Barrington Moore’s classic of historical sociology, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Of course, the worker-peasant triumph, with the October Revolution culminating in the creation of the Soviet Republic, soon led to crisis. Trotsky saw the early Soviet Republic, according to Romao, as a society in transition to socialism – but the problems facing it (economic underdevelopment, devastating impacts of world war and civil war, the relative isolation in a hostile capitalist world, etc.) caused it to develop into what became known as Stalinism, with its extreme bureaucratic-authoritarian distortions.

Day 3


The first session of the final day opened with two discussions on the evolution of Trotsky’s thought in the years of his Mexican exile. Daniel Perseguim, commenting that Trotsky’s ongoing contributions to a variety of journals over the years (in a sense, his work as “a journalist”) reveal an evolution of thinking and sensibilities, from the first issue of Iskra in 1900 to the last issue of the Russian-language Bulletin of the Opposition. This has framed Perseguim’s own research project of tracing Trotsky’s writings in his final period of exile, in Mexico, within which the final issues of the Bulletin of the Opposition (from number 54-55 in 1937 to number 87 in 1941) were published. Trotsky’s emigration to Mexico provided a relative freedom that, according to Perseguim, changed the relationship of forces on the Left to the detriment of the Kremlin. One source of enrichment in the thought of Trotsky and his co-thinkers was the influence of the indigenous cultures of the Americas – an important assertion for which there was an unfortunate lack of time to develop. A clear example of evolution in Trotsky’s thinking on the relationship of art and revolutionary politics was provided by comparing a formulation in his 1924 work Literature and Revolution and the 1938 manifesto he drafted for the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art (FIARI), the latter emphasizing the absolute necessity for autonomous artistic creativity missing from his writings of fourteen years earlier. Perseguim argued that further systematic research into Trotsky’s writings during his final exile might change our understanding of this revolutionary theorist.

Anti-imperialism and the struggle for political independence of the working class was the dual focus of the presentation by José Alberto Fonseca Ornelas. The approach developed in the mid-1930s by the Communist International under Stalin’s domination, the popular front (or people’s front), was – according to Fonseca (basing himself on Trotsky’s critical analysis) not a tactic for struggle against fascism, as presented by Stalinists at the time, but rather a crime leading to working-class defeat. It replaced the goal of working-class victory over capitalism with subordination by the labor movement to “progressive” capitalists, who would advance positive reforms in exchange for working-class political support. One example of how this worked out in practice was the backing by the Cuban Communist Party in the 1940s for the regime of Fulgencio Batista, aligned as it was, during World War II, in the anti-Hitler coalition. Of course, Batista – tied in with US imperialism – ultimately headed up the corrupt and murderous dictatorship that was overthrown by the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Another example was support in the 1930s and 1940s given by the Mexican Communist Party to the ruling nationalist PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) and its predecessors. Fonseca noted that Trotsky supported the radical-nationalist Lázaro Cardenas regime in its opposition to imperialism and its progressive national reforms – but did not favor electoral support to the party of Cárdenas. He championed, instead, the creation of an independent party of the working class. The Mexican Communist policy eventually resulted in a debilitating subordination of the powerful trade union movement to Mexico’s capitalist state, dramatically eroding the working-class power as the PRI came to be dominated by more corrupt elements than Cárdenas.

What may have been an excellent exposition by Kaveh Bovieri on the historiography of Trotsky was actually – I am sorry to say – impossible for me to hear (others noted the same difficulty) due to problems with acoustics.

Héctor Puenta Sierra began by making the important point that Trotsky represented a continuity with classical Marxism. He then repeated the earlier assertion by Suzi Weissman regarding a judgment-impairing isolation that, he argued, resulted in a complex and problematical legacy, particularly in regard to Trotsky’s development of the conceptualization of the USSR under the Stalin. Puenta argued that it was a problem to identify this as a bureaucratically degenerated workers’ state in the face of the thoroughgoing political expropriation of the working class, and the complete absence of workers’ democracy. The reality was resolved in a more satisfactory manner, he suggested, through the development by Tony Cliff of the analysis of the USSR as a variant of capitalism – state capitalism. Cliff’s analysis was superior to Trotsky’s, he contended, in preventing one from seeing the collapse of the USSR as the collapse of socialism.

The session’s final presentation was from Gabriela Pérez Noriega, Director of the Museo Casa de León Trotsky, who hailed the conference as an historic event. Before continuing with her presentation, she showed a specially-made video in which Trotsky’s grandson, Esteban Volkow (in part responding to questions from Alan Wood), greeted the conference, referred very positively to Padura’s novel about Trotsky and his assassin, The Man Who Loved Dogs, and commented on the importance of his grandfather’s ideas. After the short video, Pérez (citing the Russian’s historian Dmitri Volkoganov findings of materials in the Stalin archives) emphasized that the dictator was animated by great fear of Trotsky, which is why he sent an agent with an ice-axe to destroy one of the greatest brains of revolutionary Marxism. She observed that such enemies continued to slander Trotsky viciously down to the present day, pointing to the recent anti-Trotsky film series produced by right-wing filmmakers in Russia and distributed globally through Netflix. Those at the conference and others, with their own serious work, were pushing back against such assaults. Pérez then discussed the development of the Museo Casa de León Trotsky, noting that it had in recent years added to its mission an emphasis on defending the right to asylum for the oppressed and the persecuted – which had been central to the last chapter of Trotsky’s struggle. Revitalizing the Museo, this commitment was reflected in its investigations of and support for the recent migration movement that had surged through Mexico. Inviting everyone to visit the Museo Casa de León Trotsky, she concluded with a quote from Trotsky’s final testament: “Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.”

In the truncated discussion period, there were brief and bitter interchanges (of which there had been some rumblings on Day 2). In one of the milder interventions, responding to the presentation on Tony Cliff, I insisted that regardless of what one thought of the theory of state capitalism – and he expressed his own rejection of it – one must recognize that no Trotskyist, and certainly none at that conference, saw the collapse of the USSR as the collapse of socialism, or identified Stalinism as a variant of socialism: Stalinism is the opposite of socialism. Utilizing her prerogative as the chair of this panel, Caridad Massón (of the Cuban Institute of Cultural Research Juan Marinello) concluded the session with an impassioned admonition. Noting the existence of contradictory perspectives among a number of the presenters, she emphasized that contradictions in fact generate development. It is a mistake to see Marxism as representing something that is singular, and it is ill-served by taking a stance of dogmatic leftism – there are diverse currents of thought and Marxism can take in all. She insisted that conference participants should listen to each other and discuss with respect, working together to study reality and working together in the struggle for a better world.

Day 3 continued: Building revolutionary struggles in the Americas


The next very substantial set of presentations had a richness to which I cannot possibly do justice in this already lengthy report.

Reviewing the context and specifics of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, veteran Canadian Trotskyist Ernest Tate emphasized the internationalism that has been decisive in the efforts of Trotskyist mainstream, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist action most of all – focusing not on explication of and disputes over revolutionary texts, but rather on mobilizing practical action to defend and advance actual revolutions. He offered three examples of this in his own experience: (1) defense of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, through the development of Fair Play for Cuba Committees and multiple other efforts in the early 1960s; (2) defense of the Vietnamese Revolution in the 1960s and early 1970s, through recurrent mass anti-war mobilizations in North America and globally, which helped to limit the power of US war makers; (3) defense of the Algerian Revolution in the 1950s and 1960s, including not only anti-imperialist mobilizations but also helping to get weapons and supplies to the revolutionaries.

Simón Rodríguez’s discussion of permanent revolution in Latin America emphasized the necessity of building, throughout the continent, revolutionary organizations based on a revolutionary program, engaged in struggles of today, recognizing that that no elements of the bourgeoisie of the various countries can play a consistently progressive or democratic role, invariably functioning instead as the tail of imperialism.

Drawing on experience from his native Puerto Rico, Rafael Bernabé noted – consistent with the previous presentation – that the rise and development of US imperialism has been central to all that has unfolded in modern Latin American history. It is essential to analyze the particularity of US imperialism, which, as a latecomer in the competition of capitalist economic expansionism, has presented itself as a democratic force, in contrast to the older colonial empires. It functions differently, dominating through economic rather than political structures, and always claiming to be dedicated to “liberating” someone. In Puerto Rico, this facilitated the seduction of various reformers – often very militant in popular mobilizations against various forms of oppression, but also inclined to build faith in the United States as a progressive ally. The Puerto Rican Communist Party – the central force in building Puerto Rico’s powerful labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s – was committed to building an alliance with the “progressive” and “democratic” imperialism of the United States, particularly in the struggle against fascism during World War II. To facilitate this, the Puerto Rican Communist Party liquidated itself, which consequently facilitated the collapse of the labor movement. An economic boom combined with Cold War anti-Communism resulted in substantial political disorientation. Bernabé recalled that Trotsky had emphasized the need, in the Americas, for an “Americanized” Bolshevism to confront and defeat American imperialism. Instead, a bureaucratized Bolshevism (in the form of Stalinism) ended up confronting American imperialism – and had proved incapable of bringing victory. The struggle must continue, based on lessons learned from the past.

Bryan Palmer, drawing on new research for the upcoming second volume of his James P. Cannon biography, discussed the relationship of Cannon and another founder of US Trotskyism, Max Shachtman, with each other and with Trotsky, from 1928 through the 1930s. Cannon has had an misleading reputation of being provincial, weak on internationalism, and “innocent of theory,” while his former young protégé Shachtman has often been seen as cosmopolitan and theoretically sophisticated. Trotsky’s assessment in the early 1930s was that Shachtman was overly inclined to place “chumminess” above principle and too often unreliable on political matters; eventually he placed greater trust in Cannon. In the early 1930s a generational divide had opened up among US Trotskyists, with a younger group headed by Shachtman impatient and hostile toward the older Cannon – bringing to mind a Freudian sons-slay-the-father dynamic. Shachtman was soon reconciled with Cannon, a close and fruitful cooperation being generated by several major developments: the New York hotel workers strike; the Minneapolis teamsters strikes; the struggles against fascism and Stalinism; merger with another left-wing group headed by A.J. Muste; a battle against internal sectarian tendencies; and a decision to merge the US Trotskyists into the Socialist Party. Yet differences between the two reemerged: Shachtman was inclined to focus on negotiations and maneuvers with an organized tendency of militants in the Socialist Party (with hopes of perhaps taking over the Socialist Party), while Cannon (anticipating a split) preferred to build Socialist Party branches outside the control of the Socialist Party leadership, and helping advance labor struggles in California and Minnesota. When Trotskyists were – as Cannon anticipated – ejected from the Socialist Party, they took many labor militants and youth with them to form the Socialist Workers Party, that was able to play a leading role in helping to found the Fourth International in 1938.

A detailed, critical-minded, finely nuanced analytical account of an almost-revolution in Bolivia in the early 1950s was provided by S. Sándor John, with useful focus on both contributions from and mistakes of Bolivian Trotskyists. (Rather than trying to summarize, I will share the comrade’s contact information, since he promised to send to anyone interested the full, detailed paper on which his presentation was based: s_an@msn.com.)

A need to connect with Lindy Laub, the comrade who is working on the full-length documentary on Leon Trotsky – “The Most Dangerous Man in the World” (45 minutes of which had earlier been shown to enthusiastic conference participants) – caused me to miss the conference’s fascinating final panel. This was focused on Cuba. According to the program, this is what I missed: Ricardo Márquez on Julio Antonio Mella (1903-1929), founding leader of the Cuban Communist Party, martyred in 1929, who sympathized with the Left Opposition; Caridas Massón on a founding leader of Cuban Trotskyism – black working-class militant Sandalio Junco (1894-1942); Rafael Acosta on the Last Days of Cuban Trotskyism after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution; Burak Sayim on Trotsky, Che Guevara and Permanent Revolution.

Unplanned was an enthusiastic, more or less harmoniously multi-lingual singing of the “Internationale.” I noticed a wonderful young comrade who did not sing, looking askance at the weirdness of it all, while the older singers around her were, in contrast, especially loving it.

Concluding reflections


With the upcoming eightieth anniversary year of Trotsky’s death in 2020, there are discussions taking place about the possibility of organizing conferences and other observances in various cities around the world. This year’s Havana conference gives a vibrant sense of what can be done. It is worth learning from the experience. Worth considering, for example, is my friend’s suggestion – noted earlier – that a different organization of such a conference might be considered: a pre-determined and more planned-out selection of significantly fewer and more substantial presentations, with more time allocated for critical discussion. On the other hand, there is something to be said for providing opportunities for younger presenters to present their ideas and their scholarship – going more in the direction of what happened at the Havana conference.

As I have been completing this report, I have been struck – despite limitations I have alluded to – by the breadth and richness of the content that I have been describing. Such a gathering would have had value anywhere. The fact that it was held in Havana has great significance. Many participants seemed to feel a profound affinity between all that is vibrant and healthy in the Cuban Revolution (and in Cuban society today) and the revolutionary democracy and internationalism that are central to the Marxist theorizations developed by Trotsky. A gathering of such a diverse number of activist-scholars is impressive. For the conference organizers in Cuba – operating with quite modest resources – the achievement is even more impressive.

Even had I not been there, I would have been excited and grateful that such an event could take place. To have been able to actually be there and participate feels like an immense privilege. But beyond such individual reactions, there is the obvious question about what is the meaning of what happened in Havana. From a political standpoint it seems obvious that amid the deepening crises of our various societies throughout the world, growing numbers of people are searching for answers to the multiple and complex questions with which we are confronted. Much of what Trotsky and his various co-thinkers have had to offer in the past seem, for such people today, to provide insights and possible starting-points. This makes it likely that such gatherings and discussions will multiply and be fruitful.

The darker the night, the brighter the star: Trotsky and the struggle against Stalinism

The following is Paul Le Blanc’s presentation to international conference on Leon Trotsky, Havana, Cuba.

“The darker the night, the brighter the star,” the title of the final volume of Tony Cliff’s biography of Leon Trotsky, was taken from another book – The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars by Friedrich Schlotterbeck, a young working-class Communist in Germany when Adolf Hitler took power in 1933. His 1947 memoir on resistance to Nazi tyranny recounts the heroism and horrific destruction of comrades, friends, and family members who remained committed to socialist and communist ideals.

But Trotsky has told us: “No one, not excluding Hitler, has dealt socialism such deadly blows as Stalin. This is hardly astonishing since Hitler has attacked the working-class organizations from without, while Stalin does it from within. Hitler assaults Marxism. Stalin not only assaults but prostitutes it. Not a single principle has remained unpolluted, not a single idea unsullied. The very names of socialism and communism have been cruelly compromised … Socialism signifies a pure and limpid social system which is accommodated to the self-government of the toilers. Stalin’s regime is based on a conspiracy of the rulers against the ruled. Socialism implies an uninterrupted growth of universal equality. Stalin has erected a system of revolting privileges. Socialism has as its goal the all-sided flowering of individual personality. When and where has man’s personality been so degraded as in the U.S.S.R.? Socialism would have no value apart from the unselfish, honest and humane relations between human beings. The Stalin regime has permeated social and personal relationships with lies, careerism and treachery.” So wrote Trotsky in 1937. And those animated by such beliefs in Soviet Russia were repressed no less ruthlessly than the German Communists had been.

The Left Oppositionists that Trotsky led persisted in their struggle after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, and they were rounded up and sent to Siberian prison camps. “When you can no longer serve the cause to which you have dedicated your life – you should give it your death.” These were the words of Adolf Joffe, one of Trotsky’s close comrades who had committed suicide as a protest against Stalinism in 1927. His young wife Maria was arrested in 1929. As the situation of the condemned Oppositionists worsened by degrees, she held out, and when it became the horrific “one long night” that she describes in her memoir, she was one of the few who somehow survived to tell what happened. She was sustained by the core belief: “It is possible to sacrifice your life, but the honor of a person, of a revolutionary – never.”

Pressures to give in were intense, when capitulation could mean freedom, while remaining in Opposition meant never-ending jail and exile. By 1934, Trotsky’s close comrade Christian Rakovsky himself was ready to capitulate, his views later recounted by Maria’s step-daughter, Nadezhda Joffe, in whom he confided and whom he won over: “His basic thoughts were that we had to return to the party in any way possible. He felt that there was undoubtedly a layer in the party which shared our views at heart, but had not decided to voice their agreement. And we could become a kind of common sense core and be able to accomplish something. Left in isolation, he said, they would strangle us like chickens.”

Some imprisoned male Oppositionists who rejected this logic made three toasts on New Year’s Day: “The first toast was to our courageous and long-suffering wives and women comrades, who were sharing our fate. We drank our second toast to the world proletarian revolution. Our third was to our people’s freedom and our own liberation from prison.”

Instead, they would soon be transferred to the deadly Siberian labor camps into which hundreds of thousands of victims of the 1935-39 purges were sent as Stalinist repression tightened throughout the country. Arrested while in Moscow in 1936, Secretary of the Palestinian Communist Party Joseph Berger later remembered the Left Oppositionists he met during his own ordeal: “While the great majority had ‘capitulated,’ there remained a hard core of uncompromising Trotskyists, most of them in prisons and camps. They and their families had all been rounded up in the preceding months and concentrated in three large camps — Kolyma, Vorkuta, and Norilsk…. The majority were experienced revolutionaries who had … joined the Opposition in the early twenties…. Purists, they feared contamination of their doctrine above all else in the world…. When I accused the Trotskyists of sectarianism, they said what mattered was ‘to keep the banner unsullied.’”

Another survivor’s account recalls “the Orthodox Trotskyists” of the Vorkuta labor camp who “were determined to remain faithful to their platform and their leaders. … Even though they were in prison, they continued to consider themselves Communists; as for Stalin and his supporters, ‘the apparatus men,’ they were characterized as renegades from communism.” Along with their supporters and sympathizers, they numbered in the thousands in this area. As word spread of Stalin’s show trials designed to frame and execute the Old Bolshevik leaders, and as conditions at the camp deteriorated, “the entire group of ‘Orthodox’ Trotskyists” came together. The eyewitness remembers the speech of Socrates Gevorkian: “It is now evident that the group of Stalinist adventurers have completed their counter-revolutionary coup d’etat in our country. All the progressive conquests of our revolution are in mortal danger. Not twilight shadows but those of the deep black night envelop our country. . . . No compromise is possible with the Stalinist traitors and hangmen of the revolution. But before destroying us, Stalin will try to humiliate us as much as he can. . . . We are left with only one means of struggle in this unequal battle: the hunger strike. . . .’ The great majority of prisoners, regardless of political orientation, followed this lead.”

Lasting from October 1936 to March 1937, the 132-day hunger strike was powerfully effective and forced the camp officials to give in to the strikers’ demands. But then, Maria Joffe was told by an Oppositionist who had survived, “everything suddenly came to an end.” In 1938 the Trotskyists of Vorkuta were marched out in batches – men, women, children over the age of twelve – into the surrounding arctic wasteland. “Their names were checked against a list and then, group by group, they were called out and machine-gunned,” writes Joseph Berger. “Some struggled, shouted slogans and fought the guards to the last.” According to a witness, as one group of about a hundred was led out of the camp to be shot, “the condemned sang the ‘Internationale’ joined by the voices of hundreds of prisoners remaining in camp.”

This expanded into what Maria Joffe calls “the complete destruction of the October and Civil War generation, ‘infected by Trotskyist heresy …’” The so-called “Trotskyist heresy” analyzed how a profoundly democratic workers and peasants revolution, inspired by the deepest socialist idealism, could turn into one of the worst tyrannies in human history. Trotsky’s analysis clearly emerges from the fundamental analysis of Karl Marx eighty years earlier. It is also inseparable from the basics of Trotsky’s own theory of permanent revolution.

[In the presentation I was going to give, I intended to discuss Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR, his theory of permanent revolution, and the program of the Left Opposition. But this has already been discussed in the presentation by Eric Toussaint and can be found in the longer version of this talk that I’ve already handed out to you. In the interest of saving time, given the extra time it is taking to translate, I will cut that out of these remarks. I want to conclude with a comment about the meaning of it all – the so-called “heresy” and the program for which these wonderful comrades struggled and gave their lives.]

The relevance of this for today brings us back to this talk’s title. When we look up at night, the blackness of the universe is vividly punctuated by the stars, whose glow has traveled light-years for us to see. Even though some of those stars no longer exist, we see them shining from where we are. And their wondrous illumination may help us find our way in the dark terrain of our own times.
cuba Paul Le Blanc Trotsky
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Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and defending the Cuban, Algerian and Vietnamese revolutions against imperialism  -Ernest Tate

Posted by admin On May - 16 - 2019 Comments Off on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and defending the Cuban, Algerian and Vietnamese revolutions against imperialism  -Ernest Tate


Remarks prepared for the Havana Conference, May 6-8, 2019, on the occasion of the centennial of the founding of the Third International, on the topic of “Leon Trotsky and Trotskyism”.

May 13, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Any discussion that has Trotsky’s ideas as a subject, and which at the same time commemorates the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Third International, must of necessity, I believe, deal with his Theory of Permanent Revolution, what is now regarded by many scholars as his extraordinary and unique contribution to Marxist political economy, one of the most important since Marx. I wish to discuss here how he arrived at this concept, the political and economic context in Russia at the time he was working it out in 1905 (1) and how it was fundamentally based upon his insights into what role the peasantry would play in a revolutionary upheaval against Czarism. This will not be a fully comprehensive treatment of Trotsky’s, but I think it provides an insight into how the colonial revolution has unfolded since 1917 and how in the future the countries of the colonial world will realize their self-determination and throw of the yoke of imperialism. These ideas provided much of the theoretical framework for Trotsky’s thinking when he was struggling to found the Fourth International and when he wrote its programme for its first congress in 1938. (2) It is a concept that has distinguished Trotskyism from all other left political tendencies and it helps us understand why most Trotskyist groups – especially in the advanced capitalist countries – have been at the forefront of organizing solidarity with the counties of the third world in their struggle for self-determination and resistance to imperialism.

As is now well known, early Marxists, from the time of Marx and Engels, adhered to the idea that socialism would first develop in the advanced capitalist countries where feudalism had been overthrown by bourgeois revolutions that required struggles often lasting hundreds of years, and where now as a result, a dominant proportion of their economies were comprised of manufacturing and heavy industry with a large working-class of sufficient size and political maturity, it now could contest the capitalist ruling-class and overthrow it to seize state power. As Trotsky observed, “industrialization is the driving force of the whole of modern culture, and by this token, is the only conceivable basis for socialism.”(3)

Marx’s conclusion, as he stated in his Communist Manifesto, was that the workers make up a universal class, integral to capitalist development, and that its historic destiny was to liberate itself, and thus all of mankind, from oppression and in the process emancipate all of humanity to build a new society that would be based on satisfying human need, rather than human greed, through revolution and the seizure of state power under a programme of expanded democratic rights, which would allow a new kind of state, a workers’ state to come into existence, to overcome scarcity and hunger and the immediate implementation of the eight-hour day. It would be a European revolution, an uninterrupted single process, it was believed, a common illusion on the part of many socialists at that time. In its broad outline, Trotsky’s theory begins with Marx and Engels’ fundamental premise, with which all wings of Russian Social Democracy in the early twentieth century were in agreement: that the working class, although a minority in feudal Russia, was part of a universal class with a specific historic role, that of its own liberation and the building of a new socialist order.

From 1904 and after, the Russian Social Democratic Party had been divided into two main ideological tendencies on the question of the character of the coming revolution. The Mensheviks believed it would be bourgeois and that this class would overthrow the feudal aristocracy that would create the conditions for a parliamentary democracy that would allow for the emergence and growth of a mature capitalist economy, similar to what existed in the advanced capitalist countries. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, while recognizing the bourgeois character of a future revolution, advocated that the central task of such a revolution would be the setting up of democratic republic by means of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. Trotsky, who as a young man, first entered politics as a member of the Narodniki, a semi-anarchist organization which had attempted to represent the interests of the peasantry against the Czar, had been associated with the Menshevik faction, but in reality, organizationally stood between these groupings, looking for ways to get them to cooperate with each other in common endeavours.

Where Trotsky’s thinking departed from that of both these tendencies, was in in his conclusion that Russian feudalism in reality was already ripe for socialist revolution, precisely because of its late development and inherent weaknesses, exacerbated by the penetration of the economy by foreign capital. Capitalism in Russia, he believed, unlike that of the developed capitalist countries, would no longer able to fulfill its historic mission of introducing democratic reforms such as constitutional changes, the right to vote and a constituent assembly, the raising of wages, the introduction of the eight-hour day and a higher standard of living. Once begun, he believed the Russian revolution would be an organic historic process of necessity and would have to move forward under the leadership of the working class, and not stop half way. In that sense, it would be uninterrupted, and if that was likely to happen in Russia because it was so backward, Trotsky concluded, the same would be true for all third world countries because their economies had developed under the similar heavy influence of western imperialism, what we call today, the American empire.

Trotsky first postulated how this would come about in his major writing from that time, “Results and Prospects, the Moving Forces of the Revolution”, when he was only twenty-six years of age. In it, according to his biographer, Isaac Deutscher, he gave “an almost mathematically succinct formulation of his theory.”(4), written in his prison cell during his incarceration after the Tsar’s crushing of the Council of Workers’ Deputies in 1905, otherwise known as the Petrograd Soviet, (5) and for which he had become its main spokes-man and leading spirit He was President of its Executive Council. The 1905 Soviet would later be seen to have been dress-rehearsal for mighty victory in 1917.

Taking advantage of his time in jail to fully concentrate on the matter, Trotsky devoted his time to reading and writing and thinking through his ideas about Russian history and its unique features, a prodigious effort to deepen his understanding of what would be the role of medieval Russia’s various classes in any future upheaval, a discussion he had been involved in with other Marxists long before he had ended up in a Czarist prison. Quoting Marx, and adding a touch of sarcasm, he reminded them that “Marxism is above all a method of analysis—not an analysis of texts but an analysis of social relations.” (6)

The role of the peasantry in a future Russian revolution had long been debated among Russian Social Democrats (which unlike today, considered themselves to be revolutionary), with the Mensheviks advocating some kind of joint coalition of the working class and the peasantry to take control of the state, they said, but only in preparation for eventually relinquishing that power to the rising bourgeoise to allow capitalism to fully expand, therefore increasing the productive capacity of the economy. Earlier that year, in the summer, in a foreword to one of Ferdinand Lasalle’s speeches, Trotsky had already dismissed that notion, with words specifically directed at that Menshevik outlook. “It is self-evident,” he wrote, “that the proletariat, as in its time the bourgeoisie, fulfils its mission supported by the peasantry and the urban petty bourgeoise. The proletariat leads the countryside, draws it into the movement, gives it an interest in the success of its plans. The proletariat, however, unavoidably remains the leader. This is not ‘the dictatorship of the peasantry and proletariat’ but the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry,” he wrote. (His emphasis) (7)

In prison, he took the time to examine the Czarist empire’s history and its singular system of social relations, writing that Russia, a vast land stretching from Europe to the China, with extremely severe winters that covered much of its territory, had entered the twentieth century with a middle class strikingly feeble. Capitalism had “intruded from the West with the direct co-operation of absolutism”, he wrote.(8) With a small urban population, only 13% of the total and modern towns that were the centres of commercial and industrial life, but with older towns hardly playing any economic role in the society, being mainly military and administrative centres for the state’s services, such as tax collecting.

Compared to England and France in previous centuries, Trotsky noted, where prior to their bourgeois revolutions, large parts of their populations had been engaged in urban crafts that had helped provide social support for a rising bourgeoisie in its battles with serfdom, in Czarist Russia, only a relatively small part of the population was involved in such activities and capitalism there had “appeared as a child of the state”. Its few factories, had mainly been fostered by foreign investment but were more concentrated and much larger than those in Western Europe, and, moreover, were owned by largely impersonal shareholding companies. Because of that — and especially when the feebleness of the Russian bourgeois was taken into consideration — he saw the need for an alliance between the Russian proletariat and the peasantry, that would lead to the establishment of “a dictatorship of the proletariat that would rely on the peasantry” but which could come to power earlier than in countries where capitalism had already been established.(9)

For fifty years, Trotsky wrote, Russia had been a laboratory for the creation of every kind of peasant party, but all of them had gone nowhere. In this he differed sharply with the Mensheviks and to a lesser extent with Lenin, who in his slogans, had left that question open. Trotsky conceded that in every-day normal life, a peasant party could possibly have some kind of existence, but such a political formation, because of the Russian peasantry’s many links to its feudal masters, and the sharp social division in the countryside between rich and poor peasants, would always, when confronted with the chaos of a revolutionary crisis, cast its lot in with ruling feudal regime, against the working class, making the idea of “a proletarian and peasant dictatorship”, unrealizable. In those circumstance, he wrote, the petit-bourgeois peasant parties would become tools of the bourgeoise against the working class. Historical experience shows, he wrote, that the Russian peasantry as a class, because of its amorphousness and scattered location throughout the country, is incapable of playing an independent political role in the struggle for power at the level of the state. (10)

Written during the short life of the Petrograd Soviet, where he had remained aloof from the Bolshevik faction, Trotsky had begun to draw close to them in the sharp debates with the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, to the extent that the Bolshevik Central Committee reciprocated by throwing its support behind him. And after the crushing of the Soviet, while he was awaiting trial in the Peter-Paul fortress, Deutscher reports that according to a fellow inmate, who was a friend of Trotsky in the prison, his “words were full of warm sympathy for the Bolsheviks, to whom he was spiritually akin, and hardly suppressed antipathy for the Mensheviks, with whom he was associated.” (11) But on the question of the role of the peasantry and whether it could ever form a political party that was capable of taking take power in a future upheaval, there remained important differences. Lenin argued for a position that called for a “dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” and saw the future revolution in Russia as being bourgeois democratic in character, a view that Trotsky did not share.

Nevertheless, Deutscher tells us, Lenin continued in his efforts to win Trotsky over to the Bolsheviks and two years later, 1907, at a special Russian Social Democratic conference in London, England, organized in that city to avoid the Czarist repression in Russia, “Lenin twice emphatically acknowledged that in advocating an alliance of workers and peasants, Trotsky was on common ground with the Bolsheviks.” (12) But by the end of the conference, which lasted three weeks, that rapprochement came to an end because of bickering over other issues and it was life itself that would decide the issue, with the victory in1917, generally confirming the correctness of the position Trotsky had long advocated.

But after the death of Lenin in 1924 and with the increasing domination of the conservative bureaucracy over the new workers’ state, the issue of the Theory of Permanent Revolution became front and centre in Stalin’s drive to undermine support for Trotsky’s ideas. Using his control of the state’s apparatus to target his political enemy, Stalin, launched an extensive propaganda campaign against the Theory of Permanent Revolution, which, according to the Stalinists, was the original sin of Trotskyism, counterposing to it a system of ideas that expressed the needs of a conservative Soviet bureaucracy, formalized in concept of socialism in one country, ideas that Trotsky vigorously denounced. “To aim to build a nationally isolated socialist society,” he argued, “means, in spite of all passing success, to pull the productive forces backward even as compared with capitalism.” (13) As we all now know, that campaign would reach a peak in 1936-38 with the slaughter and imprisonment of all Trotskyists in the USSR and culminated with Trotsky’s targeted murder in Mexico in 1940 at the hands of a Stalin’s assassin.

It is clear that in the run-up to the 1917 October Revolution, Trotsky had seen the future better than any of his contemporaries, and as a consequence in the immediate years following that colossal historic event, the issue of what role the peasantry would play in pre-capitalist economy was no longer debated much. One result of his analysis, was to heighten the understanding among Marxists for the need for international solidarity by the working class of the advanced capitalist countries with the struggles for liberation of the countries of the colonial and semi-colonial world.

Marxists since Marx, had always understood the pressing need for solidarity with the oppressed of the world, a conviction that the workers of the various countries have more in common with each other than their immediate bosses and that workers’ organizations, especially revolutionary ones, should devote some of their resources to building international revolutionary organizations to carry out that task. And as the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, had declared, “In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put to an end, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put to an end. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.” (14) In 1864, Marx and Fredrick Engels took the lead in founding the International Working Men’s Association, the First International. It had a short life that lasted until 1876. Because of its support for the Paris Commune of 1871, it became the object for the hate of the of the ruling classes, contributing to its isolation. In addition, because of internal sectarian divisions and the destructive influence of the anarchists around Mikhail Bakunin, who had set up a secret organization within it to try and capture power, effectively it was dissolved. Bakunin was expelled and the First International came to an end when, under Marx’s guidance, its General Council was moved to New York. (15)

The Second International was much larger than the First and this time based upon the mass working class parties, mainly in the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe. It was founded in 1889 during the Centenary Celebrations for the French Revolution, but it ended in a terrible disaster, however, for the European working class when with the rise of social patriotism and jingoism that accompanied the outbreak of the 1914 First World War, its constituent parties, abandoning their principles and any pretence of internationalism, threw their support behind their respective ruling classes, going as far as voting in their legislatures for war credits in pursuit of the war.

This betrayal was opposed by the left-wing of the Second International and it organized itself to fight it. Meeting in secret in Zimmerwald, a small village outside Berne in Switzerland on September 5th, 1915, with Lenin and Trotsky among them, forty-two delegates, representing eleven countries, proclaimed the need for a new International, with Lenin urging the working classes of the belligerent and neutral nations to “turn the imperialist war into civil war.” Trotsky, who was elected to the new grouping’s International Committee, wrote its statement of principles, and the now well-known, Zimmerwald Manifesto. (16)) By the first week of March, 1919, barely eighteen months since the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, Lenin organized a meeting of approximately twenty delegates from a few comparatively weak socialist organizations, to proclaim the founding of the Third International –or to make preliminary arrangements for it — in effect constituting itself as the new Communist International, or Comintern as it came to be known. Trotsky, who at the time was commanding the Red Army in fighting the foreign armies of intervention, made a brief appearance, giving a short speech. He wrote its manifesto to introduce it to the world, calling for the freeing of the colonial nations. “Colonial slaves of Africa and Asia!” the manifesto proclaimed, “the hour of proletarian dictatorship in Europe will strike for you at the hour of your own emancipation.” The following year he wrote the manifesto for its second congress, including the twenty-one points establishing the criteria for membership, and was active in its work over the next three Congresses, until in Stalin’s hands, with Trotsky and the Left Opposition expelled, it became mainly an instrument in the foreign policy of the Soviet state. Despite this dreadful turn of events, Trotsky and the Left Opposition nevertheless, still saw themselves as a loyal opposition inside the Comintern, working for its reform, and characterizing its component parties, despite their many flaws and wrong policies, as still representing the militant vanguard of the working classes world wide. (17)

All that changed, however, with the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the victory of German fascism in 1933, an historic calamity for the German working class and humanity as a whole, Trotsky wrote, and a tragic consequence of the failure of the Communist Party to combat it due to the Comintern’s ultra-left policies. Up until then the loyal oppositionist had been firm in resisting calls from within his own ranks for the creation of a new International. But by October of that year, giving up all hope of reforming the Comintern, he proclaimed the need for the founding of a new International that would continue with the revolutionary policies of the first four congresses of the Comintern, policies that were deeply imbued with his Theory of Permanent Revolution, adopted when he and Lenin and the new revolutionary Soviet government had had a major influence upon it.

The Fourth International’s (F.I.) first congress took place in October, 1938. Like the first four congresses of the Comintern, its programme also was written in the spirit of the Theory of Permanent Revolution. Trotsky’s, “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Working Class”, otherwise known, especially in Trotskyist circles, as “The Transitional Programme”, states: “But not all countries of the world are imperialist countries. On the contrary, the majority are victims of imperialism. Some of the colonial or semi-colonial countries will undoubtedly attempt to cast off the yoke of slavery. Their war will not be imperialist, but liberating. It will be the duty of the international proletariat to aid the oppressed countries in war against oppressors.” (18) This helps us understand why the Fourth International during the course of its existence, would concentrate so much of its forces in defending the colonial revolution against imperialism, which reached a new intensity after the Second World War with the rise in those years of the colonies against the yoke of imperialism.

In the 1950s, for example it put considerable effort into supporting Algeria’s fight for freedom from France. French colonialism, in a savage war to try and smash the independence struggle, declared its North African colony was “a department” of France, just like any other of the departments that make up that country, a position with which, it should be noted, the French Communist Party was in agreement. But after a long war in which tens of thousands of Algerians were massacred at the hands of the French military, France conceded defeat to the National Liberation Front (N.L.F.) in 1962. All Trotskyist groupings backed the N.L.F. And some suffered repression because of it. Two leading members of the International Secretariat, Michel Pablo and Sal Santen, for example, were given fifteen-month prison sentences in Holland for counterfeiting and running guns to the N.L.F. Pablo later became advisor on the staff of the new government of Ahmed Ben Bella, a self-proclaimed Marxist and revolutionary.

Canadian Trotskyists were also active in that campaign. For example, two leading Canadian Trotskyists, Ross Dowson and Art Young travelled to Algeria on a fact-finding-mission and to attend an international solidarity conference in support of the new socialist regime. When they returned to Canada, they toured the country and spoke to several well-attended Algeria solidarity meetings on university campuses to provide information about what was going on in Algeria and the need for the Canadian labour movement to actively support the Ben Bella government. But by June 1965, this all came to an end when the Algerian military, under the leadership of General Houari Boumediene, staged a coup d’etat against Ben Bella, shifting the country sharply to the right. The coup also confronted the Cuban government with a crisis because when Ben Bella had issued his appealed for international support, the government of revolutionary Cuba had been one of the first to respond, sending material aid and military equipment and mobilizing many of its citizens to travel to that poor North African nation to provide assistance in the fields of health-care and agriculture. Cuba was forced to immediately divert its passenger planes to Algeria to bring its people home, at a time when American imperialism was increasing its efforts to over-throw Fidel Castro and putting enormous pressure on the Cuban economy to realize that aim.

However, it was the Cuban Revolution that had the greatest impact on North American Trotskyists in the early sixties and it provides an admirable example of how the F.I. was front and centre in mobilizing support for it. In the United States, the lead in this campaign was taken up by the Socialist Workers Party (S.W.P.). Two of its central leaders, Farrell Dobbs and Joe Hansen, had toured Cuba shortly after the victory in 1959, in order to obtain a first-hand assessment of the progress the Cuban people were making under the new government. That they were able to travel to Cuba at that time was a bit of a miracle because their passports had been taken away from them during the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunt period and had only been returned after a long legal battle. The trip to Cuba was one of the first on their new legal documents. Dobbs, who had been the leader of the Minneapolis Teamsters’ Union in its militant strikes in the 1930s, was the Party’s Secretary; Hansen was its main political theorist and editor of its journal, International Socialist Review. He was the Party’s main intermediary with the Fourth International’s centre in Brussels. (Because of U.S. law, the S.W.P. was officially barred from membership in the F.I.) During Trotsky’s exile in Coyoacan, Mexico, Hansen had been assigned by the SWP to live there and assist him in his work. Part of a ten-member team, he was there when Trotsky was assassinated in 1940.

After the two S.W.P. leaders returned from Cuba and reported what they had experienced, the party immediately began preparing the membership for a campaign with the objective of making defending Cuba against the American empire its central political priority. To that end both Dobbs and Hansen toured the U.S. and Canada to report to Party branches and activists on the changes they had witnessed directly and up close. Happily, his came at a time when support among the American people for Cuba was growing. A full-page advertisement soon appeared in the New York Times, signed by many prominent writers, intellectuals and personalities, defending Cuba’s right to self-determination and demanding that the American government cease interfering in Cuban affairs After the ad’s appearance, a new defense organization in support of Cuba’s right to self-determination, came into existence, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (F.P.C.C.), organized by some of those whose names had been featured in the advertisement.

One of the Committee’s main functions was to try and cut across the malevolent distortions about Cuba that were regularly appearing in a hostile U.S. media, and tell the truth to the American people about what was going on there. Members of the American Communist Party and the S.W.P., historically opposed to each other, were the main organized radical forces within it. Soon it was sponsoring tours of Cuba, sometimes lasting several weeks, made up of writers, prominent intellectuals and artists, to witness the gains of the Revolution so that the participants could report to the public the truth of what they had seen. It organized many public meetings and picket-lines in support of Cuba – several thousand outside the United Nations, for example and at a time when Cuban leaders such as Fidel and Che Guevara were there. It also published many pamphlets and brochures to provide information to the American public about the progress Cuba was making in such areas and health and education. These circulated widely, an attempt to tell the American people the truth about the Revolution’s many successes.

The American F.P.C.C., it has to be mentioned, while doing very good work, unfortunately had a very short life. Targeted by American security forces for repression, the U.S. State Department summoned its representatives to appear before a special Senate committee for questioning and formally classifying the F.P.C.C. as “representing a foreign government”, along with the threat of forcing it to hand over its membership lists to the government. To avoid this fate and protect its members from the spying eyes of the F.B.I., the F.P.C.C. swiftly dissolved itself, a severe blow to the growing solidarity movement.

But it was a different story in Canada. The Trotskyists there, especially after the visit of Dobbs and Hansen to Cuba, were keen to go there. Verne Olson, a long-time Canadian revolutionary socialist and leader of the Socialist Educational League (S.E.L.), the F.I.’s official section in Canada, had the good fortune of being included on an early American F.P.C.C. sponsored tour. On his return, he addressed many large meetings across Canada, some with several hundred in attendance. As luck would have it, in Canada, there was a lot more popular sympathy for Cuba than in the United States. Many Canadians, resenting their southern neighbour’s interference in their own affairs, were against the bullying of Cuba, a sentiment that continues to this day, with almost a million Canadian visiting Cuba each year. That was when the Canadian equivalent of the F.P.C.C. was organized. It had a much longer life than American Committee, and in one of the most successful campaigns of its kind in the English speaking world, its members and supporters were active in trade unions and the New Democratic Party (N.D.P.), (Canada’s version of a Labour Party) to resist the efforts of the American government in pressuring the Conservative government of John Diefenbaker, to restrict trade and tourism with Cuba and to isolate it so that it would not be an inspiration to all colonial people. It turned out to have a very productive life that lasted ten years.

The organization and work of the F.P.C.C.– a broadly based organization, comprised of members representing different view points, in a single-issue campaign to defend the national rights and self-determination of a small Third World country such as Cuba — was entirely in the spirit of Trotsky’s Theory of the Permanent Revolution and became the template later in the decades of the sixties and seventies for organizing support for third world peoples, especially in Asia in 1965, in their resistance to imperialism, the year the United States massively escalated its military presence in South Vietnam and launched a barbarous war on the North, with hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers thrown into the battle against Vietnam’s struggle for independence, accompanied by a savage bombing campaign that covered the entire country waged from the air, in which tens of thousands of Vietnamese were killed. The defeat of the American forces in Vietnam became a major campaign objective for the Fourth International, as outlined in a major resolution, adopted at its 1965 Congress that concluded with a special discussion about how to organize against the war.

In the United States, as the war escalated, the S.W.P. sought to mobilize as many people as possible against the war, around the slogan of “Bring the Troops Home Now!” Making full use of the tactic of building single-issue coalitions that had been so effective in defending Cuba, it was able to play a critical role in leading a movement that grew steadily and massively as the war escalated with the U.S. sending hundreds of thousands of troops there, so well described by Fred Halstead, in his very important book about those events, “Out Now! A Participants Account of the Movement in the U.S. against the Vietnam War”, (19)

The same was true in Britain. Using similar tactics as those utilized by the North Americans, a grouping of Trotskyists of the Fourth International, the International Marxist Group (I.M.G.), took the lead in organizing the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (V.S.C.), which over the course of a relatively short period of time, working in a broad coalition, called the Ad Hoc Committee Against the War, organized a series of demonstrations outside the American Embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square, each becoming increasing violent and massive as the war progressed. One the largest in the history of Britain, a demonstration of well over a hundred thousand protestors, mobilized in central London, on October, 1968, directed against the Harold Wilson Labour Government to help persuade it to resist American pressure to become more active in support of the war, including the sending of British troops. Such was the anti-war mood in Britain at the time, which the V.S.C. had helped foment, it would have been political suicide for Wilson to have acquiesced to the U.S. demands.

The V.S.C. was greatly helped in this work by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation (B.P.R.F.), it should be noted. It played an important part in bringing the V.S.C. into existence. Organized by the well-known British philosopher, Bertrand Russell and his secretary, Ralph Schoenman to cast a bright light on the crimes being committed by imperialism against the colonial people, the B.R.P.F. was a tireless opponent of American imperialism. To this end, and as the American actions in Vietnam became increasing savage, Russell, who over the years had won enormous respect in the Third World for his various well-publicized campaigns against the crimes of colonialism, issued an international appeal, directed at the consciousness of the world, appealing for the setting up of an international war-crimes tribunal made up of leading writers, thinkers and personalities to come together to examine the American actions in Vietnam. What came to be known as the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal, attracted some of the worlds leading intellectuals and thinkers of that time, such as Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Laurent Schwarz, Isaac Deutscher and many others. It was also publicly supported by Fidel Castro. (He threatened to organize a Cuban sponsored a public session of the Tribunal in New York). Melba Hernandez, Fidel’s comrade-in-arms from the 26th of July Movement and the attack on the Moncada fortress, became a member and an important influencer in its the work.

The Trotskyists of the I.M.G. in Britain, recognizing its significant propaganda value against the war, committed itself to doing all it could to make sure the Russell Tribunal would be a success and meet its objectives. It provided the day-to-day staff to carry out its work, such as the organizing of press conferences and meetings, the publishing of its bulletins and brochures, all the work such a project required, including t making the arrangements for sending its many investigative teams to Vietnam – sometimes of long duration –to collect evidence of the cruel and catastrophic effects of the American military actions against the people there. The Tribunal’s conclusions, adopted in its sessions in Sweden and Denmark — after being officially banned from meeting in France and Britain — about the criminality of the American actions, circulated widely around the world and helped to convince many of the need to end that cruel war.

These three campaigns – the Algerian, the Cuban and the Vietnamese – which activists of the F.I. committed themselves to in the period of the sixties and seventies – and which I have outlined here — show that the idea of international solidarity was not an abstract idea for them. It was a central part of its political programme. It led it to call for actions to which it assigned resources and members, setting a powerful example for others about what could be achieved if left wing forces would unite to resist imperialism. For example, and more recently, the massive opposition in Britain against the invasion of Iraq in 2005, was organized and led by the Socialist Workers Party there, who regard themselves as Trotskyist but are not part of the Fourth International. It seems, they remembered very well their history of fighting against the war in Vietnam and how that was carried out. The same was true in Canada, where the International Socialists, who also consider themselves to be Trotskyists, organized some of the largest demonstrations ever seen in the country, against that war. In this sense, Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution, ever since it was written in 1905 in Petrograd in a Czarist prison, has stood the test of time and maintains its validity, even today. Hopefully, it will inspire a new generation of activists in various countries, especially in North America, to build solidarity with Cuba as it now faces increasing disruption at the hands of the American empire

It was the year when the Russian tsarist empire had entered a profound, social and political crisis. The previous year, in 1904, in a total surprise to the world powers at that time – and to the Russian autocracy — Japan had declared war on Russia, defeating it and destroying its navy in the Far East, a great humiliation for the absolutist regime, leading to a deep crisis of confidence in it. It was the beginning of a radicalization that had never been seen before. Early in 1905, protests swept the empire over shortages and high food prices. Workers in the massive Putilov engineering works in Petrograd walked off the job and soon other factories were at a standstill. That’s when the notorious Father Gapon, who in cooperation with the Czarist authorities, set up his Workers Assembly and led over 20,000 workers in a peaceful protest to deliver a petition to the Czar at the Winter Palace, only to be met by his Imperial troops who opened fire on the assembled crowd. In Russian history, it became known as “Bloody Sunday”. Hundreds, if not thousands were slaughtered and in the outrage that swept the country following it – which included a mutiny on the battleship Potemkin – the Grand Duke Sergei, the Governor General of Moscow was assassinated.
Section: “Aiding Non-Imperialist Countries” in The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Working Class, by Leon Trotsky, otherwise known, especially in Trotskyist circles as, The Transitional Programme.
P 21, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects by Leon Trotsky, Pioneer Publishers, 254pp, 1965.
P 150, The Prophet Armed, Volume 1, by Isaac Deutscher, Oxford University Press.
The Petrograd Soviet came into existence in the midst of a general strike, in October, 1905, which had erupted when the city’s printers suddenly hit the streets demanding higher wages, shorter working hours and constitutional freedom. Rapidly spreading beyond the printing trades to other industries and then into the provinces, the strike grew into a massive general-strike which spread throughout Russia, shaking the Czarist regime to its foundations, taking the Russian Social Democratic Party (with its two factions, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks) and Social Revolutionaries, completely by surprise, most of whose leaderships had been in exile in Western Europe. It was the first appearance in feudal Russia of a Soviet and lasted only fifty days before being liquidated by the Tsarist state.
P196, Trotsky, Results and Prospects
P202, Op. cit.
P183, Op. cit.
P65, Op. cit.
P156, Deutscher, vol 1,
P146, Op. cit.
P178, Op. cit.
p22, Op. cit.
P 340, Capital, The Communist Manifesto and other Writings, by Karl Marx, edited by Max Eastman, Modern Library Books, New York, 1932.
Chris Hagsberg, Socialist Review September, 2014.
P226, Deutscher, Volume 1.
P43, Deutscher, Volume 2.
Trotsky, Death Agony of Capitalism.
Out Now! A Participants Account of the Movement in the U.S. against the Vietnam War by Fred Halstead, Merit Publishers.
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Why Trotskyism?-Jimena Vergara

Posted by admin On April - 1 - 2019 Comments Off on Why Trotskyism?-Jimena Vergara


August 21 was the 78th anniversary of the murder of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. The anniversary took place at a historical moment when there are sufficient objective conditions for a revolution. The capitalist crisis, the inter-imperialist contradictions, the resurgence of right-wing nationalism led by Donald Trump and the growing interest in socialist ideas in imperialist countries like the United States demonstrate that we live in a world ripe for revolution. The question today is, why Trotskyism?

Trotsky’s role in the October Revolution and his revolutionary practice have been slandered and ignored throughout his life and after his death. Stalinism, in its desire to destroy any opposition within the Soviet Union, tried to erase the heritage of Bolshevism, calling the most prominent leaders and militants of the October Revolution “Trotskyists.” Stalinists persecuted, deported, assassinated and silenced all dissent inside and outside the USSR. To remove all the revolutionary edge from Lenin’s legacy, they made Lenin a central figure of the country’s state ideology, erecting statues and celebrating him. Stone and concrete hid the true teachings of the author of the “April Theses.” Trotsky, on the other hand, was erased from history; hundreds of documents were falsified, and Lenin’s last testament was banned in the USSR. And the inaccuracies persist today: just a few years ago, historian Robert Service’s 2009 biography of Trotsky was re-published—a text full of lies, misrepresentations, and gross errors about the head of the Red Army.

Thus, an interest in Trotskyism is not just for those of us who are revolutionaries in the tradition of Trotsky. An accurate account of Trotsky’s role and impact is also about preserving history more generally and enacting historical reparations.

Why were Trotsky and supposed “Trotskyists” persecuted? Why did that persecution reach Mexico City, where Trotsky was murdered? Why did that persecution include the murder of Trotsky’s children?

Leninist Bolsheviks, as they called themselves, embodied the lessons of the October Revolution and set up the only organized political current that proposed an alternative against bureaucratized Soviet Russia and the Communist Party. They did so first through the Left Opposition and later by organizing the movement for the Fourth International.

It was Trotsky who fought tooth and nail against the reactionary theory of socialism in a single country—the ideological cover of bureaucratic conservatism. It was Trotsky who defended a workers’ democracy and a Soviet multiparty system, and promoted international revolution as a safeguard of the Soviet Union itself and as a central task of communism. It was Trotsky who proposed the program of political revolution and the economic and political struggle against the parasitic bureaucracy. Stalinism could lock up the so-called Trotskyists in concentration camps, kill their leaders or put them to death, but in the end, it could not erase the ideas of the heirs of the Soviet revolution.

Although Trotsky’s thought is undeniably relevant today, it is necessary to contextualize his ideas. We cannot re-create Trotsky’s ideas dogmatically because doing so would contradict his own historical materialist method. His way of approaching reality was deeply holistic, flexible, dialectical and intransigent in pursuing the revolutionary objectives of the working class.

Trotsky belonged to the third generation of the classical Marxists. Together with Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, he was one of the most brilliant and lucid representatives of Marxism. This generation, according to historian Perry Anderson, had an essential characteristic that reflected the thought of the founders of Marxism: the link between theory and practice. Marx and Engels had to theorize and organize at a time when bourgeois revolutions were still possible and the working class was building its first organizations, political ideas and struggles. However, Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg lived in a moment of crises, wars and revolutions. They employed the arsenal provided by their teachers in the historical moment in which they lived, organizing for the proletarian revolution.

Trotsky and Lenin also understood that capitalism in its imperialist phase brought forth deeply convulsive forces, giving rise to a period of great wars, great economic cataclysms and, of course, revolutionary processes. They understood that it was necessary to leave behind the legacy of those obsessed with tactics during times of peace and resort instead to strategy—the art of organizing isolated operations to win the war. And winning the war for the socialists meant destroying capitalism and erecting another form of social organization at the service of the great majorities. With the revolution of 1905 in Russia, when the workers of Petrograd created their own forms of democratic organization (the soviets), it was imperative to think about how the proletariat would take power.

That is why the Marxists of that time introduced the difference between strategies and tactics to Marxist thought, as suggested by Trotsky himself:

“Prior to the war we spoke only of the tactics of the proletarian party; this conception conformed adequately enough to the then prevailing trade union, parliamentary methods which did not transcend the limits of the day-to-day demands and tasks. By the conception of tactics is understood the system of measures that serves a single current task or a single branch of the class struggle.” To Trotsky, Revolutionary strategy, on the contrary, embraces a combined system of actions which by their association, consistency, and growth must lead the proletariat to the conquest of power.”

Political action and Marxist theory make up an indivisible union, characterized by the concrete task of proletarian revolution. Revolutionary Marxism is fundamentally centered around strategy, and Trotsky, without a doubt, is one of its primary thinkers. For us, Marxism is the practical and theoretical synthesis of the experiences of the proletariat over the past 150 years. In its practical and contemporary manifestation, this means struggling to take power and to construct transitional revolutionary states that are democratically organized. These struggles put before us the great tasks of expropriating the capitalists and putting the means of production and the wealth of society in the hands of the people, with the aim of satisfying their social needs.

But for Trotsky, and for the Marxists of today, the objective is not only to take power. The proletarian state is a means for the development of the international socialist revolution. It creates the conditions to build Communism on a global scale, destroying social classes and the state itself.

The next task is to destroy the toxic social relations built by capitalism and to create new ones. Today, 200 monopolies suck up all the wealth that is produced globally. We throw away over 1 billion tons of edible food every year while millions of people struggle with food insecurity and famine around the world. Capitalist narratives scare us into believing that the earth cannot support its growing population when, in reality, these monopolies produce enough food to sustain everyone in the world several times over.

In this imperialist stage of capitalist development, our task is that of preparing for the coming insurrection, the seizure of power and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Thus, it is necessary build the organization that can take up these tasks, an organization built to prepare itself for revolution. On the one hand, the October Revolution was made possible by the Bolshevik party, a revolutionary party rooted in the working class and educated in Marxist theory and class struggle. On the other hand, the absence of a strong communist party in Germany prevented the most powerful proletariat in Europe from following the path of the Russian workers. Today, although Marxism is organizationally weak, the pressing task is to link Marxist thought to the combative youth and the working class, by building revolutionary organizations. Although we still have a long way to go before an insurrection, we should consider every struggle, however small, as a school of war to prepare us for those decisive revolutionary moments.

The party is not separate from the conscious action of the proletariat; it is the workers who move the fundamental strings of the capitalist economy in industry, manufacturing, services, communications, ports and transport. The working class is the key to paralyzing the capitalist state and to breaking its spine. Working-class methods of struggle, such as the strike, are fundamental. Yet it is not enough to fight in working-class struggles. Workers must also fight for political independence, breaking with bourgeois leaders—capitalist and reformist politicians, as well as bureaucratic union leaders who support the capitalists.

Independent working-class struggle is the key to building a new type of power and a new type of society based on workers’ democracy. Soviets, a manifestation of the workers’ United Front, are organs of direct working-class democracy and the foundation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The party has a place in participating in soviets and, in the decisive moment, in pushing the working class to take power, moving the soviets from defending the working class to destroying the capitalist state.

Stalinism immensely degraded Marxism and erased the revolutionary thought of Lenin and Trotsky. Without Trotsky, the revolutionary tradition of Marxism would be totally eclipsed by the horrors of Stalinism. Marxism after World War II lived in the shadow of Stalinism, losing its connection with practice and for many, becoming merely academic thought. During the revolutionary upsurges that shook the world during the late 1960s, Marxist ideas once again become a part of the consciousness of youth and sectors of workers. Yet capitalism managed to emerge from the crisis, becoming stronger after the fall of the Soviet Union and imposing neoliberalism on a global scale.

Neoliberalism created a “common sense” notion, which even convinced most of the left that it was no longer possible to destroy capitalism. The best one can do, according to some leftists today, is humanize it, give it a less aggressive face and temper monopoly power. It is impossible to organize a revolution, and capitalism is supposedly here for good. But we think that to renounce the struggle for a revolution is to renounce the struggle to end human misery and exploitation and fulfill every aspiration of the great majority of society. To renounce organizing for revolution is to act in the service of the profits of a parasitic minority that hoards the great wealth produced by the working class. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the workers’ states of Eastern Europe, the idea that there is no possible alternative has become further entrenched. In Russia, the consequences of the capitalist restoration have been disastrous: did the capitalist restoration bring more democracy for the Russian masses, as pro-capitalist ideologies proclaimed? Absolutely not.

That is why our aim to organize is based on the revolutionary legacy of Trotsky, knowing that the new economic, political and social phenomena will bring about new societal crises.

It is impossible to understand Trotsky if we do not understand that for him, the formation of a revolutionary party implies errors, successes, advances, setbacks and the conquest of positions– from union leadership to legislative seats. All victories, from the triumph of a strike to the seizure of power in a country, are the means to prepare or promote socialist revolution. Therefore, to understand Trotsky is to understand his work in the light of his political practice throughout his life. In Petrograd in 1917, he helped create the first workers state in history, and he advised leaders in Germany in 1923 and in Barcelona in 1937. In both cases he pushed for the seizure of power by the working class, but this was foiled by an inexperienced leadership in Germany and crushed by counterrevolutionary Stalinism in Spain. While hopping from one country to another, seeking exile and safety from both the capitalists and Stalinists, he theorized about and supported the fight against both fascism and Stalinism. Despite the slander against him, he put his energy toward building a revolutionary organization. It is in these historical moments that we can understand the breadth of Trotsky’s revolutionary legacy.

Let’s hope that the growing interest in socialist ideas at the international level, and in particular in the United States, will bring today’s youth—who know that capitalism has nothing to offer—closer to Trotsky’s theory and practice, rejecting the notion that communism means a lack of democracy and the continuation of oppression and economic misery.

As Trotsky wrote in his last days, “I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth. Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.”
—Jimena Vergara
Jimena participated in the year-long strike at the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM) in 1999-2000, and was thrown in prison because of her role. She is an author of the collection “Mexico en Llamas” and lives and works in New York City.
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In Defence of Bolshevism By Max Shachtman

Posted by admin On March - 19 - 2019 Comments Off on In Defence of Bolshevism By Max Shachtman


In Defence of Bolshevism
By Max Shachtman
Phoenix Press, 2018 · 311 pages · $15.00

–Review by Paul Le Blanc

This is an important work on Lenin and the Bolshevik tradition. While many have been profoundly impressed by the valuable work of Lars Lih in Rediscovering Lenin (2006), Max Shachtman was articulating and documenting many of the same points in the late 1930s, through the 1940s and 1950s, and into the early 1960s. His defense of Bolshevism was articulated over and over, with facts and citations buttressed with brilliant turns of phrase, sometimes with entertaining (even hilarious) flourishes—and often with challenging, inspiring, illuminating insights.

“The Russian revolution of 1917, which Lenin led, [was] a socialist revolution that established a genuine workers’ government,” Shachtman argued in a 1957 letter to Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas. and In the years leading up to that revolution Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades were animated by the conviction that “socialism can and will be attained only by the fullest realization of democracy.” Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship in the Soviet Union had not “carried out the ideal and principles of the socialist revolution to a logical conclusion” but instead had “betrayed and destroyed it,” as he put it several years earlier, and “if we defend the Bolsheviks today, it is in the interest of historical objectivity but also because we remain loyal to the emancipating fight for socialism.”

Political background

The editor of this volume is Sean Matgamna, leader of a small British group associated with the publication Workers Liberty, whose perspectives are elaborated in a lengthy introduction. His group adheres to a theory that Shachtman developed upon breaking with Leon Trotsky in 1940, viewing the Soviet Union as a new form of class society, what Shachtman and his cothinkers called bureaucratic collectivism. The importance of this volume, however, transcends such matters, and has more to do with Shachtman’s earlier convictions—which remained within him as a powerful residue through his later years.

Shachtman began his political life in the Young People’s Socialist League, youth group of the Socialist Party of America, in the glory days of Eugene V. Debs. As with many Eastern European immigrant youth of the time, he was inspired by the Russian Revolution, and he became a leader of the Young Communist League in the early 1920s, going on to help James P. Cannon create the International Labor Defense (ILD). The ILD defended the rights of all working-class and left-wing activists of that time, most notably the immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Cannon concluded, in the late 1920s, that the perspectives of Leon Trotsky represented a genuine alternative to the bureaucratic and authoritarian degeneration of the Communist movement. Shachtman joined with him, and both, along with handfuls of others, were expelled from the US Communist Party. Shachtman began this phase of his political life as one of the central leaders of the revolutionary socialist current associated with Trotsky, with whom he collaborated closely throughout the 1930s.

Among Shachtman’s contributions during the volatile Depression years was his editorship of the theoretical journal New International; two of the articles in this volume date from that time. One is an incisively critical review of a memoir written by Angelica Balabanoff, who had played an important role in the early Communist International before joining the anti-Communist wing of the socialist movement. The other is a brilliant discussion of the relationship of two outstanding revolutionaries of the twentieth century, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. The balance of the items in this volume is drawn from the period after Shachtman’s break with Trotsky, but deal mostly with matters around which he was in harmony with his former teacher.

Shachtman’s later political orientation evolved in a social-democratic direction, ending in a 1958 merger into the Socialist Party of America. He was a mentor to an important younger layer of US socialists, including Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin. Such protégés had a powerful impact on social struggles and political thought on the left in the 1960s. Shachtman never renounced his earlier pro-Bolshevik beliefs, but they were now refracted by a political evolution at odds with his earlier revolutionary standpoint. In Left Americana I recall:

When one heard Shachtman explain himself [as I did in 1968], one heard passionately revolutionary syllables forming stolidly reformist words. Uncompromising notions of class struggle became inseparable from a commitment to the far-from-radical officialdom of the AFL-CIO and to its place in the Democratic Party, and the defense of socialism from Stalinist betrayal added up to an alignment with the US government in the cause of Cold War anti-Communism—all with a Marxist flourish.

Despite this evolution, the analysis, scholarship, and insights in Shachtman’s pro-Bolshevik essays are worth engaging with. In illuminating what actually happened in history, Shachtman was being true to revolutionary cause—even while veering from it in his latter-day orientation.

Shachtman’s defense of Bolshevism

In contrast to Shachtman, the former Communist educator Bertram D. Wolfe—who became an increasingly conservative anti-Communist propagandist for the US State Department—devoted the last twenty-five years of his life to attacking and slandering the Bolshevik tradition. Shachtman’s critique of Wolfe’s influential work on Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the Bolshevik party,Three Who Made a Revolution, is presented in abridged form. Missing from the substantial fragment is the apt characterization of “Wolfe’s style . . . the polite mockery, the faint air of condescension, the misplaced irony, the elderly skepticism toward the Russian Revolution and its leaders which is so fashionable nowadays.” But we do find in this book reference to Wolfe’s “innuendo, clouded allusions, grunts, grimaces, pursed lips, winks and nods” and a pointed suggestion that Wolfe was “just a little … careless with his innuendos.”

Shachtman focuses attention on two sentences thrown out in passing—“Just in passing!” Shachtman thunders—containing “more insight than can be found in any two chapters of Wolfe’s book.” Here are the sentences:

Nineteen five and nineteen seventeen, the heroic years when the machine was unable to contain the flood of overflowing life, would bring Trotsky to the fore as the flaming tribune of the people, would show Lenin’s ability to rise above the confining structure of his dogmas, and would relegate Stalin, the machine-man, to the background. But no people can live forever at fever heat and when that day was over and Lenin was dead, the devoted machine-man’s day would come.

“Then why the title Three Who Made a Revolution?” asks Shachtman. “The facts presented by Wolfe show this to be a falsification and the above quotation confirms it. The title he gives his book is therefore utterly misleading.” He concludes: “It would of course be very awkward to load a book with a title like Two Who Made a Revolution and One Who Made a Counter-Revolution, but one merit it would have: it would be accurate.” Stalinists insist on a continuity of Lenin and Stalin to enhance the latter’s authority, and anti-Communists do it to discredit Lenin.

Confronting widespread accusations of Lenin’s intolerance, Shachtman observed: “Nine times out of ten, Lenin’s ‘intolerance’ consisted, for the opponents, in the fact that he refused to accept their point of view on a question.” Pushing hard against the notion that Lenin’s Bolshevik organization was authoritarian, he insisted that “the Bolshevik movement had, on the whole, more genuine democracy in its organization, more freedom of opinion and expression, a freer and healthier internal life, than at least nine-tenths of the other socialist or trade-union organizations of Europe,” and that “the hideous monolithism of Stalin’s regime was entirely unknown—it was not even dreamed of—among the Bolsheviks. Political tendencies were formed without let or hindrance, and if they dissolved it was not under compulsion of any kind. . . . Lenin’s collected works, which were composed largely of open ‘inner-party’ polemics and the files of a dozen different factional papers and pamphlets provide inundating evidence of this rich, free and open party life.”

Contested terrain

Most items in this volume emerged from the context of debates on the left. Pride of place is devoted to “Under the Banner of Marxism.” This is aimed at Ernest Erber, a prominent member of the Workers Party who in 1948 announced his withdrawal from revolutionary politics with a lengthy critique of Lenin’s theory of the state and of the Bolsheviks’ 1917 decision to take power. Shachtman employs bell, book, and candle—not to mention lightning and thunder, peppered with humor and passion—in defending both. Why did Leninism give way to Stalinism? Shachtman responds:

Exactly ninety-nine per cent of the critics of Bolshevism answer the question this way, at bottom: The Russian workers lost power because they took power. Stalinism (the destruction of the Russian workers’ power) followed ineluctably from the seizure of power by the proletariat and Lenin’s refusal to surrender this power to the bourgeois democracy. Exactly ninety-nine per cent of the revolutionary Marxists answer the question in this way, at bottom: The Russian workers lost power because the workers of other countries failed to take power.

Particularly fascinating is the substantial summary of a 1951 debate at the University of Chicago between Shachtman and Alexander Kerensky, exiled leader of the provisional government that Lenin and the Bolsheviks ousted in 1917. Kerensky, employing a quote from the anarchist Proudhon against Marx, claimed that “Communism is nothing more than inequality, subjugation, and slavery,” characterizing his 1917 struggle with the Bolsheviks as “not a fight between capitalism and socialism, but between freedom and slavery.” Kerensky concluded: “Stalin is the most able, most talented disciple of Lenin.” In contrast, Shachtman insisted:

The road out of the blind alley into which society is being driven more and more, lies in the struggle for democracy. The struggle for democracy receives its clarity, purpose and guarantee in the struggle for socialism; the struggle for socialism lies in the hands of the working class—the beast of burden, the despised of the earth—whose will to victory was forever underlined by their first great revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

This perspective—compromised in some of what Shachtman later did, but never repudiated by him—is essential to the revolutionary Marxist tradition. Here we can find not only Shachtman at his best, but also a diverse lot of others: Tony Cliff, C. L. R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Ernest Mandel, Hal Draper, James P. Cannon, Leon Trotsky, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Marx, and many more.  Growing numbers of socialists, today and tomorrow, may find something of value in what this tradition has to offer.

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We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

On fire: A dialectical heritage-Jason Devine  

Posted by admin On March - 2 - 2019 Comments Off on On fire: A dialectical heritage-Jason Devine  


February 24, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Heraclitus has come down to us as the philosopher of Πάντα ῥεῖ, of the view that everything flows. This immediately calls to mind the image of water. Indeed, a saying of his that most commonly attends discussions of his philosophy is the following: “Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow.”[1] However, this can only lead to false impressions. For fire plays a far greater and more fundamental role for Heraclitus, as both an element and a metaphor, than water ever did. Fire expresses and is the eternal alteration between life and death, movement and rest, between uniformity and diversity viz. what has come to be known as the dialectic.

It should be recalled that Hegel consciously built his system on the basis of Heraclitus. As he once famously stated, “there is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my Logic.”[2] In taking over the latter’s dialectic he also absorbed his notion of fire. But the dialectic does not remain still. Not merely do its forms change, but the human comprehension of the dialectic varies as well. Thus we find Hegel’s dialectic more concrete compared to Heraclitus, while fire was reduced to a subsidiary function within the totality of Hegel’s system. And yet fire and the dialectic remained inextricably bound together.

Finally, in considering Marx, we find yet another alteration in the conception of fire and dialectics. Here Marx’s materialist outlook is an advance on the idealism of Hegel, and yet also represents, on one level, a return to the materialism of Heraclitus. This is a true concretisation of the dialectic. And yet, unlike the previous two, fire does not play an important conceptual role for Marx. Rather it sinks to the level of a mere metaphor for the dialectic of human activity. By examining the development of the notion of fire in the dialectics of Heraclitus, Hegel, and Marx light can be cast on the essence of their dialectical thought. More specifically, when we look at the continuity and discontinuity of the imagery of fire across these three great thinkers, we can see how they dialectically passed the torch of the dialectic as a tool of enlightenment.

According to Hegel, the history of philosophy is the dialectical progression of human thought. Since the principle by which this development occurs is the dialectic, this history is also a history of the dialectic itself. As such the importance of Heraclitus is that he took “the dialectic itself as principle.”[3] For Hegel the latter is an unfolding totality, one which moves from the abstract to the concrete. As he stated in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy:
The advance requisite and made by Heraclitus is the progression from Being as the first immediate thought, to the category of Becoming as the second. This is the first concrete, the Absolute, as in it the unity of opposites. Thus with Heraclitus the philosophic Idea is to be met with in its speculative form; the reasoning of Parmenides and Zeno is abstract understanding.[4]

Here the logical and the historical are united.[5] Everything before Heraclitus is seen as abstract, one-sided, merely preparatory. Hence he and his philosophy were viewed by Hegel as both temporally and logically subsequent to the Eleatics. He echoed the same sentiments later on when he stated that “As the first concrete determination of thought, becoming is also the first genuine one. In the history of philosophy it is the system of Heraclitus that corresponds to this stage of the logical Idea.”[6] For Hegel, then, Heraclitus is the first real step forward in the development of human thought. This he accomplished by positing the dialectic, and thereby concretising previous thinking. It is no wonder then that, as noted above, Hegel held him in such high regard. Nor can there be any doubt of the importance which a study of Heraclitus holds for understanding Hegel’s method and system.

Marx and Engels, unsurprisingly, both studied Heraclitus but only ever wrote about him in passing.[7] His importance to them was less theoretical and more so historical. This is not to say that they did not esteem his philosophy. As Marx wrote to Ferdinand Lassalle upon receiving the latter’s book on Heraclitus: “I have always felt a great TENDERNESS for this philosopher, whom I prefer above all the Ancients save Aristotle.”[8] Engels, for his part, argued that Heraclitus was an important philosophical forerunner:
When we consider and reflect upon nature at large or the history of mankind or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, permutations and combinations, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away. This primitive, naive but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of ancient Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is fluid, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.[9]

In light of Engels’ statement that the “old Greek philosophers were all born natural dialecticians,” this can only mean that, similar to Hegel, he held Heraclitus to be a founder of the dialectic.[10] But a distinction should be noted here. According to Hegel the importance of Heraclitus is the place he holds in the progression of the Absolute Idea i.e. the former interpreted the latter idealistically. Engels, however, understood Heraclitus to be an early materialist philosopher and, therefore, represented an initial advance in humanity’s conceptual grasp of material reality. While it is true that neither Marx nor Engels produced a systematic study of Heraclitus, this cannot obviate the powerful influence the latter had on philosophy in general, and dialectical logic in particular.[11]

The exact details of the life of Heraclitus are not known. The information that exists is, like his philosophy, fragmentary. What can be assured, as Robinson has remarked, is that Heraclitus “lived during the period spanning the end of the sixth century and the beginning of the fifth century BC.”[12] Further, he was an aristocrat and lived in the Greek port city of Ephesus. The latter was a place of great wealth, serving as a commercial hub in the ancient world. It was here that Heraclitus is said to have written a single book entitled On Nature, although there is debate as to whether this is true or not.[13] Whatever he actually wrote, all that has come down to us are fragments which, a careful reading reveals, have common threads binding them together.[14]

In fragment 30 Heraclitus lays bare the nature of reality, stating that “The cosmos, the same for all, none of the gods nor of humans has made, but it always was, and is, and shall be: an ever-living fire, being kindled in measures and being extinguished in measures.”[15] Heraclitus’ meaning here can be taken as both literal and symbolic. First, he is asserted that everything is literally made of fire as it is the basic element of reality. This, therefore, includes the other basic elements: “The turnings of fire are, first, sea; and of sea, half is earth and half fiery waterspout…Earth is poured out as sea, and is measured according to the same ratio it was before it became earth.”[16] While stating that the different elements transition between each other, his assertion is that fire is the primary element which underlies the others and to which they return: “Fire lives the death of earth, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of air, earth that of water.”[17] Hence a cycle is formed with fire being both the beginning and end viz. the entire universe is an infinite ring.

Secondly, therefore, Heraclitus’ also means fire in the symbolic sense of the continual flux and change of fire as it burns: its form is always altering and yet it remains the same. This constant change is not chaotic however, as his mention of measures imply that this movement is ordered, structured, and lawful. In what is presumed to be the introduction to his work Heraclitus wrote that “This logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it…all things come to be in accordance with this logos.”[18] He stated further that “it is necessary to follow this what is common. But although the logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding.”[19] What is the logos? It is fire and as the latter takes many forms, we should not be surprised to find the logos under different names. Thus “All things are an exchange for fire, and fire for all things, as good for gold and gold for goods.”[20] This exchange is the turning between opposites, so that “Fire is want and satiety,” or, in other words “God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and hunger.”[21] The logos is Fire, and Fire is God: the whole of existence.

This is shown further in fragment 10, where Heraclitus argues that “Things taken together are whole and not whole, being brought together and brought apart, in tune and out of tune; out of all things there comes a unity, and out of a unity all things.”[22] Fire, then, stands for the process of the unity and division of opposites, or what Engels referred to as the “interpenetration of opposites.”[23] This all-embracing process determines everything: “War is the father of all and the king of all, and some he shows as gods, others as humans, some he makes slaves, others free.”[24] Hence, war is fire and fire is war: “For fire will advance and judge and convict all things.”[25] Furthermore, chaos is order and order is chaos: “It is necessary to know that war is common and justice is strife and that all things happen in accordance with strife and necessity.”[26] The lawful order of reality, then, arises out of the eternal flux of its process. As Heraclitus wrote, “The most beautiful arrangement is a pile of things poured out at random.”[27] Chance and necessity, life and death, unity and division: everything is a universal alteration.

It is clear from the above that when Heraclitus made references to God he did not mean so in either a monotheistic or polytheistic sense. No his philosophy was an ancient materialism: if not atheistic, then at least pantheistic. Certainly, according to the logic of his thought, there is reason to believe that his whole point in referring to the logos by different names was intended to elucidate the unity amid diversity. It was also likely intended to aid the understanding of those who read his work by shining a light on popular ignorance. And this is why fire best represented the whole matter: for fire is always moving, always altering, and yet remaining the same: “Changing, it rests.”[28] The creation of fire arises from destruction and in destroying it creates.[29] This means, further, that this eternal process of change is self-regulating, as is implicit in fragment 30 quoted above. In other words, there is an inner logic to reality i.e. precisely the logos. The logic of Heraclitus, then, is dialectical and its most lucid expression is fire.

In leaving Heraclitus and turning to Hegel, we find a number of dialectical transitions. For example, fire remains a symbol of the dialectic, but its conceptualisation differs viz. the framework shifts from a materialist pantheism to absolute idealism. Further, where the dialectic is implicit in the thinking of Heraclitus, it is explicit in Hegel. In fact, we can characterise this development as the move from ancient to modern dialectics. From a Marxian perspective, then, Hegel represents both a progression and a retrogression compared to Heraclitus. In order to properly appreciate the historical significance of the former, his relationship with the latter must be illuminated and cognised.

Hegel, in the second part of his Philosophy of Nature, “Inorganic Physics,” discussed the four elements of air, fire, water, and earth. As these follow upon the elementary particles, which, for Hegel, is a moment of unity, of identity, the four elements therefore represent a moment of diversity, the splitting into opposition of the original self-identity. He classifies the four into a similar structure viz. air as a phase of universal, abstract unity, fire and water as a phase of particular, mediated antithesis, and earth as individualised identity. Though the elements differ amongst themselves in their concreteness, each taken alone is abstract as opposed to their concrete unity:
The individual identity, by which the different elements in terms of both their difference from each other and their unity with each other are bound, is a dialectic which constitutes the physical life of the earth, the meteorological process. It is in this process alone that the elements, as dependent moments, have their existence, being generated in it and posited as existent.[30]

The Earth itself, then, is the totality, the integration of the elements and hence is the moment of a self-unity. What matters here is not the scientific basis or lack thereof of Hegel’s writing. Rather it is the very structure, the logic of his conception. As Thomas Posch has argued “it may thus be said that all categories developed in the Science of Logic have their respective counterparts in the Philosophy of Nature (and also in the Philosophy of Spirit); moreover, the succession of the logical categories and of their respective counterparts is roughly the same.”[31] This can also be said for his History of Philosophy. In other words, the question here concerns Hegel’s dialectical method.

Within this general context, Hegel wrote the following passage about fire itself, and which can only be considered Heraclitean:
The elements of the antithesis are (a) being for itself not the indifferent being of rigidity, but rather being for itself posited in individuality as a moment, and therefore material selfhood, light identical to heat: fire. This element is materialised time, absolutely restless and consuming, and causes the self-consumption of the subsisting body as it conversely destroys the body through its external approach. In consuming another, fire consumes itself.[32]

When Hegel stated that “fire…is materialised time,” he was referring to Heraclitus, especially to the latter’s “ever-living fire.” Fire, for both thinkers, is the continual flux, the constant change of reality. The manifold of appearances are always altering, but the essence remains the same viz. the permanent diremption of unity, its re-establishment via the fusion of its oppositions, and the eventual self-division.[33] It should be recalled that Heraclitus was not conscious of this principle and thus presented the dialectic abstractly or, as I stated above, implicitly. Accordingly, only with Hegel was it made explicit, or further concretised. That is to say, the dialectic was shown to be not a mere dance between unity and division, between immediate and mediate, but, more specifically, the movement from the abstract to the concrete, the unfolding of the totality.

Yet the reference to time in relation to fire does not refer only to constant transmutations in general. Hegel, in his section on Heraclitus, in his History of Philosophy, provides an overview and systematic reading of the latter’s philosophy by referring to most of the fragments. There he wrote that “Understanding the abstract process as time, Heraclitus said: ‘Time is the first corporeal existence,’ as Sextus (adv. Math. X. 231, 232) puts it…Corporeal here means abstract sensuousness; time, as the first sensuous existence, is the abstract representation of process.”[34] Since time is the abstract expression of process, therefore fire, as a more concrete expression of the latter, is materialised time. And we can see the same formulation in the Philosophy of Nature: “Time, as the negative unity of being outside of itself, is just as thoroughly abstract, ideal being: being which, since it is, is not, and since it is not, is.”[35]

What, though, exactly is this process? To answer the question it must be emphasised that Hegel did not believe that Heraclitus actually held that fire was truly the basic principle. Rather he stressed that while some ancient authorities argued that fire was primary, and others held other elements to have that status, he denied all four of them that role. Thus he wrote that
Heraclitus could no longer, like Thales, express water, air or anything similar as an absolute principle—he could no longer do so in the form of a primeval element from which the rest proceeds—because he thought of Being as identical with non-being, or the infinite Notion; thus the existent, absolute principle cannot with him come forth as a definite and actual thing such as water, but must be water in alteration, or as process only.[36]
Hegel here argued, quite logically, that the basic principle for Heraclitus was the dialectic, the flux of opposites, and therefore could not be a sole element. Heraclitus had said that “We step into and do not step into the same rivers. We are and are not.”[37] This is what Hegel phrases as the identity of being and non-being. Yet Hegel’s argument was undoubtedly an instance of his making explicit what was implicit in Heraclitus. Indeed, he went on to remark that
To Heraclitus the truth is to have grasped the essential being of nature, i.e. to have represented it as implicitly infinite, as process in itself; and consequently it is evident to us that Heraclitus could not say that the primary principle is air, water, or any such thing. They are not themselves process, but fire is process; and thus he maintains fire to be the elementary principle, and this is the real form of the Heraclitean principle, the soul and substance of the nature-process. Fire is physical time, absolute unrest, absolute disintegration of existence, the passing away of the ‘other,’ but also of itself; and hence we can understand how Heraclitus, proceeding from his fundamental determination, could quite logically call fire the Notion of the process.[38]
To Hegel, fire is both a symbol and a physical manifestation of the higher, single principle: the unity and opposition of Being and non-being. Being is what it is because it is not non-being, and vice versa. However, being inextricably bound, being mutually dependent, they are not different, but the same. Hence, instead of being two poles standing apart and structuring each other, it is actually a self-opposition, a self-determining. As there is no determination by an external other, hence finitude, but rather a self-relation, it is thus an infinite relation.[39]

As we can see, Hegel repeated Heraclitus but not exactly. More particularly, Hegel, aside from his idealism, held that no element could predominate among others. Where he did repeat Heraclitus, following the nature of the dialectic, was in the idea of eternal change. Time continues on and does not stop. However, we cannot touch or see time: it is immaterial. Fire, then, as ever changing, ever consuming, is a materialisation of time, and therefore perfectly exemplifies the negativity of the dialectic, the unity and division of Being and non-being.[40] Hegel explicitly made this the bedrock of his system:
This universal principle is better characterized as Becoming, the truth of Being; since everything is and is not, Heraclitus hereby expressed that everything is Becoming. Not merely does origination belong to it, but passing away as well; both are not independent, but identical. It is a great advance in thought to pass from Being to Becoming, even if, as the first unity of opposite determinations, it is still abstract…This philosophy is thus not one past and gone; its principle is essential, and is to be found in the beginning of my Logic, immediately after Being and Nothing.[41]
With this passage Hegel not only gave a brief overview of the beginning of his Science of Logic, but he also disclosed a most compact summary of his dialectics. Further, in grasping the latter as the foundation, it should be quite comprehensible that we find Hegel’s method and categories replicated across his system. It is an organic whole and each part represents a possible entry point for grasping the totality; all are interrelated.[42] Therefore, any one of Hegel’s works can be taken as a means to light the way in studying his entire philosophy.

In leaving Hegel and advancing towards Marx, we again find a materialist understanding of the dialectic. But this was not a simple repetition of the materialism of Heraclitus: the dialectic is not a circle, but a spiral.[43] Indeed, Engels argued in 1859 that an aspect of Marx’s “establishing the dialectical method” after Hegel, was divesting it “of its idealist wrappings.”[44] More specifically this involved the “elaboration of a world outlook that was more materialist than any previous one.”[45] Marx’s scientific socialism, therefore, recognised the materiality of existence, but not in the form of a basic element. Fire, as will be seen, plays no key role in Marx’s thought. Rather, it serves as a symbol for the foundation of his dialectical logic: labour, practical human activity.

The identification of fire and the dialectic was replicated by Marx, but the form this took changed over the course of his career. For example, in 1841, while a Young Hegelian, he was working on his doctoral dissertation. Here he provided a systematic Hegelian reading of Epicurus. Marx wrote that, “Time, on the other hand, is the fire of essence, eternally consuming appearance, and stamping it with dependence and non-essence.”[46] In view of the analysis above it is clear that there is nothing specifically “Marxist” in this formulation: time as an eternal process, as an all-consuming perpetual fire which expresses the dialectical flux between essence and appearance. At this moment it could not have been otherwise; so that, although Marx wrote his doctoral dissertation under the sign of atheism, he was repeating the form and content of the Hegelian reading of Heraclitus.[47]

Years later, in 1857, amidst the heat of his intensive studies in political economy, Marx wrote in his notebooks that “Labour is the living, form-giving fire; it is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, as their formation by living time.”[48] The dialectic of fire, as perpetual transformation, as destructive creation-creative destruction, still persists, but not as the basic building block of reality, nor as an expression of the Absolute Spirit coming to consciousness. No, here it stands as a metaphor for the open-ended power of human agency. It is no longer a mystical logic, but the logic of labour.[49] As Marx wrote just before the above line:
The transformation of the material by living labour, by the realization of living labour in the material – a transformation which, as purpose, determines labour and is its purposeful activation (a transformation which does not only posit the form as external to the inanimate object, as a mere vanishing image of its material consistency) – thus preserves the material in a definite form, and subjugates the transformation of the material to the purpose of labour.[50]
Reality is in a permanent flux: the only constant is change. To describe this unstable condition as an eternal, self-regulating fire can only be done symbolically. Nor does the pre-ordained logic of God’s plan guide the hands of humanity. It is not by some higher will that humanity changes its environment, determines its existence, but rather it is only according to its own agency. It is human activity that is self-determining, self-regulating, self-creating, self-structuring, etc. Human existence is social and this social world is the product of labour, of the collective re-shaping of the natural world over time. Labour is the practical blaze that clears away the past and opens a way for the future.

The theoretical transition point in Marx’s conception of the dialectic was in 1844. It was in that year that Marx was busy with a number of studies and among which he began, but did not finish, a critique of Hegel’s philosophy. In his opinion,
The outstanding achievement of Hegel’s Phänomenologie and of its final outcome, the dialectic of negativity as the moving and generating principle, is thus first that Hegel conceives the self-creation of man as a process, conceives objectification as loss of the object, as alienation and as transcendence of this alienation; that he thus grasps the essence of labour and comprehends objective man – true, because real man – as the outcome of man’s own labour.[51]
For Hegel the scope of the human drama is a historical process of development, of self-becoming. Humanity, the subject, is faced with an alien world, the object: it struggles with it, fights with it, alters it. Through the alienation process it comes to see itself in the object, to recognise itself in it. Humanity comes to being, comes to self-recognition, by overcoming the alienation viz. subject and object become one. Hence Marx goes on to argue that “Hegel’s standpoint is that of modern political economy. He grasps labour as the essence of man – as man’s essence which stands the test: he sees only the positive, not the negative side of labour. Labour is man’s coming-to-be for himself within alienation, or as alienated man.”[52] By “modern political economy” Marx here especially referred to the work of Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, and David Ricardo. But “modern political economy” at that time was, of course, bourgeois political economy and, hence, trapped within the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production: increasingly it was degenerating into vulgar economics, moving away from its original scientific insights and falling into pure ideology.[53]

Labour is alienated under capitalism viz. it takes place in the context of a class-divided division of labour where, consequently, the average products of labour, and labour itself, are privately bought and sold on the market.[54] Classical political economy takes this fact to be timeless, as essential to labour itself. Hegel, despite his great historical grasp, accepted this premise, and his understanding of labour was consequently itself alienated. Therefore, Marx continued,
The only labour which Hegel knows and recognises is abstractly mental labour. Therefore, that which constitutes the essence of philosophy – the alienation of man who knows himself, or alienated science thinking itself – Hegel grasps as its essence; and in contradistinction to previous philosophy he is therefore able to combine its separate aspects, and to present his philosophy as the philosophy.[55]
Hegel’s achievement here was also his failure. The same alienated understanding which allowed him to grasp the essence of philosophy and the development of humanity, also meant that he “fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself.”[56] Thus, for Hegel, the coming-to-be of humanity is actually the coming to be of God viz. the identity of subject and object is determined on an idealist basis. This is why Marx’s point about the “essence of philosophy” being “alienated science thinking itself” is key. Marx was moving away from philosophy and struggling for a scientific method and outlook, towards what he termed the “new” materialism.[57] This was achieved the following year with the writing of his theses on Feuerbach and the German Ideology. It was precisely the historical focus on human practical activity that constituted the basis of scientific socialism.[58]

Labour, however, does not just produce our food and clothing, build housing, etc. It also creates our social relations and provides the basis for human thought. Marx discussed this fact in the course of a critical attack on Proudhon, which made in an 1846 letter to Pavel Annekov. Written just before he began work on his Poverty of Philosophy, this is one of the most important pieces of Marx’s oeuvre, and one that remains, even today, woefully under-read and understudied by Marxists. As Marx argued:
M. Proudhon has very well grasped the fact that men produce cloth, linen, silks, and it is a really great merit to have grasped such a small matter! But he has not grasped that, according to their productive forces, these men also produce the social relations amid which they manufacture cloth and linen. Still less has he understood that men, who produce their social relations in accordance with their material productivity, also produce ideas, categories, that is to say the abstract ideal expressions of these same social relations. Thus the categories are no more eternal than the relations they express. They are historical and transitory products.[59]
This is the material, historical basis for the growth of human consciousness, of knowledge, of what Marx termed the ideal. However, this is still a generalisation and does not address the specifics of how this process develops. On this question Aristotle had already provided an essentially correct argument. According to him, it was through the experience of repeatedly perceiving different phenomena that general concepts began to emerge in our consciousness. As this process was repeated and compounded, even more abstract and general concepts, expressing the universal essence of the variety were and are formed.[60] Yet, in light of Marx, the weakness of Aristotle’s position here is obvious: he treats the development of concepts or categories, as simply a result of the repetition of perception. But, as we have seen, humans are no passive observers; rather they are active agents. Ergo, it is through the reiteration of practical activity and its comprehension i.e., the process of active abstraction, that knowledge arises.[61]

Further, it should be recalled that the history of humanity is one of class struggles. With the growth of the class-divided division of labour, theory and practice are increasingly specialised and relatively divided. The performance of mental and physical labour tends to become the purview of specific social groups. More specifically, sections of the ruling class become focused on the systematisation of abstract thought. Aristotle had already rightly noted that “those who are in a position which places them above toil have stewards who attend to their households while they occupy themselves with philosophy or with politics.”[62] Or, in the words of the German Marxist August Thalheimer, “As Aristotle said, leisure is the premise of philosophy.”[63] Of course though, Aristotle was not a Marxist: he was not making a historical analysis of the development of society. Rather, he was simply describing how society functioned in his time. In order to understand the rise of philosophy we need to look elsewhere.

August Thalheimer provided the first popular Marxist analysis of the development of abstract thought. He argued that there were “universal material conditions for the development of philosophy and science and for the disintegration of the popular religion in ancient times.”[64] Of these he listed “the first in importance” as “the advance in the development of the productive capacity, in the productiveness of the economy, in the mastery of nature” which was “distinctly connected with the development of private property and a commodity economy.”[65] Continuing on he argued that the “second and closely related condition” was that “with the development of a commodity economy in which merchant capital and money capital grow up alongside of the priestly class and the landowners, a new class of people appears who enjoy free time, who have leisure to develop themselves and to dedicate themselves to art and science.”[66]

As an example of this historical dialectic, Thalheimer referred to Greece, for it was there that “the development of philosophy and natural science is closely related to the development of Greek commercial cities on the coast of Asia Minor, where, as early as the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., there emerged a materialistic viewpoint opposed to the priesthood.”[67] The cities which Thalheimer emphasised were “Miletus and Ephesus” and which stood “culturally and economically, far above contemporary Greek development.”[68] The intellectual revolution seen here was not only based on the leisure afforded the wealthier classes, but also on
the fact that through the growth of commercial shipping the intellectual horizon of these Greeks of Asia Minor was tremendously widened. These first Greek merchants traversed the whole Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, etc., with their merchant ships. They came to know many strange peoples, religions, manners, and customs.[69]

Ephesus, of course, was the home of Heraclitus.[70] And so, underlying the abstract fire of the latter, we find the concrete fire of human practical activity. Yet this is only one aspect of the question. The full scope of the practical basis of philosophy, of systematised abstract thought, can and should be extended. To be more specific, while Thalheimer built upon Aristotle’s second insight into the formation of philosophy, the first was later developed by the English Marxist George Thomson. He argued that the extensive development of the commodity value-form was directly reflected in growth of philosophy in ancient Greece. For example, in regards to Heraclitus he asserted that the “concept of a self-regulating cycle of perpetual transformations of matter is the ideological reflex of an economy based on commodity production.”[71] How exactly though? In Thomson’s words,
civilised thought has been dominated from the earliest times down to the present day by what Marx called the fetishism of commodities, that is, the ‘false consciousness’ generated by the social relations of commodity production. In early Greek philosophy we see this ‘false consciousness’ gradually emerging and imposing on the world categories of thought derived from commodity production, as though these categories belonged, not to society, but to nature. The Parmenidean One, together with the later idea of ‘substance,’ may therefore be described as a reflex or projection of the substance of exchange value.[72]
Thomson’s argument here is a stellar contribution to the Marxist critique of philosophical history. Yet, though essentially correct, it contains an incorrect formulation. That is, Thomson here, and elsewhere, makes the formation of philosophical categories and systems the automatic product of the economy. But human thought is not mechanically produced by the impact of the social environment. No, the growth of knowledge is an example of the power of human activity. Therefore, it was not merely the surplus product produced by slave labour, or the new experiences of the rising class of merchants, which aided the development of Greek philosophy, but also the theoretical examination, the active cognition of the repeated acts of commodity exchange developing in the bosom of the slave economy.[73] This is precisely the historical basis for the parallel which Lenin noted between the commodity and the syllogism.[74]

This short study on the history of dialectical logic began with the fire of Heraclitus, progressed to Hegel’s system, and finally moved on to Marx’s method and outlook. We now find that we have returned to Heraclitus, for it was never any sort of fire which set the practical and intellectual world in motion, but rather the dialectic of human practical activity, or what Marx in his earlier period called labour. The dialectic of humanity, then, is the materialisation of the latter. But in this logic, history is not automatic: it is consciously made by humans:
The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity…The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals.[75]
These “real individuals” are not automatons, they have consciousness. So that their activity, whether fully understood or not, is always conscious. To quote Lenin, “The concept (cognition) reveals the essence (the law of causality, identity, difference, etc.) in Being (in immediate phenomena)—such is actually the general course of all human cognition (of all science) in general.”[76] We study being, the object, objective reality, and piercing beyond its immediate surface reach its essence and this gives rise to our concept of it. In turn, we use the concept to understand the essence of new, different beings. All of this occurs within social activity. We move, then, from the concrete to the abstract, and from the abstract to concrete. Hence, although human consciousness reflects reality, it is not a dead mirror, it is not an effect of an impersonal structure.[77] Indeed, it is an expression of the infinite creativity of human agency: we humans collectively forge our reality.

All of our existence therefore is a product of past and present labour viz. of historically developing human activity. As the subject-object, the self-creator, humanity is not the product of any God, nor a “natural” development. In the words of E.V. Ilyenkov,
Nature as such creates absolutely nothing ‘human’. Man with all his specifically human features is from beginning to end the result and product of his own labour. Even walking straight, which appears at first sight man’s natural, anatomically innate trait, is in actual fact a result of educating the child within an established society.[78]
Because we have created this world, it is within our collective power to change it. Yet this can only be done by understanding our current society in its contradictions and revolutionising it “in practice.”[79] In this task there is no better organon than Marx’s dialectical logic. But to grasp the latter we must study it and understand it in its dialectical formation. Heraclitus was the first dialectical logician and all subsequent developments in logic can been seen as refinements in the logos he first set down. The questions is: does one reject or critically accept this heritage? For Marxists, we must unequivocally claim Heraclitus as our teacher, avowing ourselves as his pupils. In the coming revolutionary conflagrations, this ancient thinker still has much to teach us.

[1] Heraclitus, “Fragment 12,” in A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia, ed. Patricia Curd and tran. Richard D. McKirahan Jr. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1996), 36.
[2] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Volume 1: Greek Philosophy to Plato, trans. E.S. Haldane and Frances H. Simson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 279.
[3] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 279.
[4] Ibid., 279.
[5] This combination was accomplished, however, on an idealist basis. Engels set forth the materialist understanding of the dialectic between the logical and historical as follows: “Even after the determination of the method, the critique of economics could still be arranged in two ways — historically or logically. Since in the course of history, as in its literary reflection, the evolution proceeds by and large from the simplest to the more complex relations, the historical development of political economy constituted a natural clue, which the critique could take as a point of departure, and then the economic categories would appear on the whole in the same order as in the logical exposition. This form seems to have the advantage of greater lucidity, for it traces the actual development, but in fact it would thus become, at most, more popular. History moves often in leaps and bounds and in a zigzag line, and as this would have to be followed throughout, it would mean not only that a considerable amount of material of slight importance would have to be included, but also that the train of thought would frequently have to be interrupted; it would, moreover, be impossible to write the history of economy without that of bourgeois society, and the task would thus become immense, because of the absence of all preliminary studies. The logical method of approach was therefore the only suitable one. This, however, is indeed nothing but the historical method, only stripped of the historical form and diverting chance occurrences. The point where this history begins must also be the starting point of the train of thought, and its further progress will be simply the reflection, in abstract and theoretically consistent form, of the historical course. Though the reflection is corrected, it is corrected in accordance with laws provided by the actual historical course, since each factor can be examined at the stage of development where it reaches its full maturity, its classical form.” See, Frederick Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ Part One, Franz Duncker, Berlin, 1859,” in Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (New York: International Publishers, 1989), 225.
[6] G. W. F. Hegel, The Encyclopaedia Logic: Part I of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences with the Zusätze, trans. T. F. Geraets, W. A. Suchting, and H. S. Harris (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1991), 144.
[7] The only extensive socialist study of Heraclitus was written by Ferdinand Lassalle. This work, Die Philosophie Herakleitos des Dunkeln von Ephesos, can be found online: https://archive.org/d etails/diephilosophieh01l ass/pag e/n3. However, upon reading it Marx found it wanting and wrote to Engels that “Heraclitus, the Dark Philosopher by Lassalle the Luminous One is, au fond, a very silly concoction. Every time Heraclitus uses an image to demonstrate the unity of AFFIRMATION and NEGATION—and this is often—IN STEPS Lassalle and makes the most of the occasion by treating us to some passage from Hegel’s Logic which is HARDLY improved in the process; always at great length too, like a schoolboy who must show in his essay that he has thoroughly understood his ‘essence’ and ‘appearance’ as well as the ‘dialectical process.’ Once he has got this into his speculative noddle, one may be sure that the schoolboy will nevertheless be able to carry out the process of ratiocination only in strict accord with the prescribed formula and the formes sacramentales. Just so our Lassalle. The fellow seems to have tried to puzzle out Hegelian logic via Heraclitus, nor ever to have tired of beginning the process all over again… Despite the fellow’s claim, by the way, that hitherto Heraclitus has been a book with 7 seals, he has to all intents and purposes added nothing whatever that is new to what Hegel says in the History of Philosophy.” See Karl Marx, “Marx to Engels, 1 February 1858,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works Volume 40, Letters 1856-59 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1983), 259-260. This judgement was echoed decades later by another interpreter of Heraclitus: “Lassalle, in two ponderous volumes noted above, made the first and most elaborate attempt to reconstruct the system of the Ephesian philosopher. His work exhibits immense labor and study, and extended research in the discovery of new fragments and of ancient testimony, together with some acuteness in their use. Lassalle has a very distinct view of the philosophy of Heraclitus. But it is not an original view. It is, in fact, nothing but an expansion of the short account of Heraclitus in Hegel’s History of Philosophy, although Lassalle makes no mention of him, except to quote upon his title-page Hegel’s well-known motto, “Es ist kein Satz des Heraklit, den ich nicht in meine Logik aufgenommen”.” See, G.T.W. Patrick, “Introduction,” in The Fragments of the Work of Heraclitus of Ephesus On Nature, trans. G.T.W. Patrick (Baltimore: Press of Isaac Friedenwald, 1889), 4. Lenin, in his philosophical studies, essentially repeated the same criticisms: “One can understand why Marx called this work of Lassalle’s “schoolboyish”…Lassalle simply repeats Hegel, copies from him, re-echoing him a million times with regard to isolated passages from Heraclitus, furnishing his opus with an incredible heap of learned ultra-pedantic ballast. The difference with respect to Marx: In Marx there is a mass of new material, and what interests him is only the movement forward from Hegel and Feuerbach further, from idealistic to materialistic dialectics. In Lassalle there is a rehash of Hegel on the particular theme selected: essentially transcribing from Hegel with respect to quotations from Heraclitus and about Heraclitus.” And he ended his notes on Lassalle writing categorically that “In general, ΣΣ, Marx’s judgment is correct, Lassalle’s book is not worth reading.” See, V.I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Lassalle’s Book The Philosophy of Heraclitus the Obscure of Ephesus,” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 339-340, 353.
[8] Karl Marx, “Marx to Ferdinand Lassalle, 21 December 1857,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works Volume 40, Letters 1856-59 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1983), 226.
[9] Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), 30.
[10] Ibid., 29.
[11] This importance cannot be stressed enough. Indeed, the father of formal logic, Aristotle, clearly posited the laws of logic in opposition to Heraclitus: “For a principle which every one must have who understands anything that is, is not a hypothesis; and that which every one must know who knows anything, he must already have when he comes to a special study. Evidently then such a principle is the most certain of all; which principle this is, let us proceed to say. It is, that the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect; we must presuppose, to guard against dialectical objections, any further qualifications which might be added. This, then, is the most certain of all principles, since it answers to the definition given above. For it is impossible for any one to believe the same thing to be and not to be, as some think Heraclitus says.” See, Aristotle, “Metaphysica,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 736-737. On this matter we should recall the words of Lenin: “NB: At the beginning of The Metaphysics the stubborn struggle against Heraclitus, against his idea of the identity of Being and not-Being (the Greek philosophers approached close to dialectics but could not cope with it).” See, V.I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Aristotle’s Book Metaphysics,” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 366.
[12] T.M. Robinson, Heraclitus, Fragments: A Text and Translation with a Commentary (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 3.
[13] Ibid., 3.
[14] Again, from Marx’s letter to Lassalle: “I am all the more aware of the difficulties you had to surmount in this work in that ABOUT 18 years ago I myself attempted a similar work on a far easier philosopher, Epicurus —namely the portrayal of a complete system from fragments, a system which I am convinced, by the by, was—as with Heraclitus—only implicitly present in his work, not consciously as a system. Even in the case of philosophers who give systematic form to their work, Spinoza for instance, the true inner structure of the system is quite unlike the form in which it was consciously presented by him.” See, Marx, “Marx to Ferdinand Lassalle,” Collected Works Volume 40, 316.
[15] Heraclitus, “Fragment 30,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37. Lenin, in regard to this statement, commented that it was “A very good exposition of the principles of dialectical materialism.” This is high praise indeed coming from Lenin, and it should further emphasise for all Marxists the necessity to study Heraclitus in order to grasp dialectical logic. See, Lenin, “Conspectus of Lassalle’s Book,” 347. I would add that when Lenin referred to “dialectical materialism” he should be taken to mean Marx’s method. As I have argued elsewhere, there is no philosophy of dialectical materialism and Lenin, for a number of reasons, was mistaken on this question. See, Jason Devine, “On the “Philosophy” of “Dialectical Materialism”,” accessed 30 January 2019, http://links.org.au/node/4667 and Jason Devine, “‘Dialectical Materialism,’ Ideology and Revisionism,” accessed 30 January 2019, http://links.org.au/dialec tical-materialism-ideology-revisionism.
[16] Heraclitus, “Fragments 31a and 31b,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37.
[17] Heraclitus, “Fragment 76a,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37.
[18] Heraclitus, “Fragment 1,” in A Presocratics Reader, 30.
[19] Heraclitus, “Fragment 2,” in A Presocratics Reader, 30. This is echoed in Hegel: “It marks the diseased state of the age when we see it adopt the despairing creed that our knowledge is only subjective, and that beyond this subjective we cannot go. Whereas, rightly understood, truth is objective, and ought so to regulate the conviction of every one, that the conviction of the individual is stamped as wrong when it does not agree with this rule.” See, G.W.F. Hegel, Hegel’s Logic: Being Part One of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830), tran. William Wallace (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 35.
[20] Heraclitus, “Fragment 90,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37.
[21] Heraclitus, “Fragment 65,” in A Presocratics Reader, 38; Heraclitus, “Fragment 67,” in A Presocratics Reader, 38.
[22] Heraclitus, “Fragment 10,” in A Presocratics Reader, 34.
[23] Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), 62.
[24] Heraclitus, “Fragment 53,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37.
[25] Heraclitus, “Fragment 66,” in A Presocratics Reader, 38.
[26] Heraclitus, “Fragment 80,” in A Presocratics Reader, 38.
[27] Heraclitus, “Fragment 124,” in A Presocratics Reader, 35.
[28] Heraclitus, “Fragment 84a,” in A Presocratics Reader, 37. Hegel certainly had this in mind when he wrote that “Appearance is the process of arising into being and passing away again, a process that itself does not arise and does not pass away, but is per se, and constitutes reality and the life-movement of truth. The truth is thus the bacchanalian revel, where not a member is sober; and because every member no sooner becomes detached than it eo ipso collapses straightway, the revel is just as much a state of transparent unbroken calm.” G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, tran. J.B. Baillie (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1967), 105.
[29] This indissoluble unity between creation and destruction was emphasised by Bakunin when he was still a Young Hegelian: “Let us therefore trust the eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” Mikhail Bakunin, “The Reaction in Germany: From the Notebooks of a Frenchman,” in Michael Bakunin, Bakunin on Anarchism, tran. Sam Dolgoff (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980), 57.
[30] G.W.F. Hegel, “Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature,” accessed 1 February 2019, https://www.marxists.org/reference /archive/hegel/works/na/nature2.htm.
[31] Thomas Posch, “Hegel and the Sciences,” in A Companion to Hegel, eds. Stephen Houlgate and Michael Baur (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2016), 180.
[32] Hegel, “Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature,” accessed 1 February 2019, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive /hegel/works/na/nature2.htm.
[33] As Hegel said later in his Philosophy of Nature, “life is essentially the concept which realises itself only through self-division and reunification.” Hegel, “Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature,” accessed 1 February 2019, https://www.m arxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/na/nature3.htm.
[34] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 286. Although this fragment is no longer considered to have been written by Heraclitus it does not matter, because in Hegel’s time it was not thought spurious and he therefore had every reason to accept it.
[35] G.W.F. Hegel, “Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature,” accessed 3 February 2019, https://www.marxists.org/reference/ar chive/hegel/works/na/nature1.htm.
[36] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 286.
[37] Heraclitus, “Fragment 49a,” in A Presocratics Reader, 36.
[38] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 287.
[39] This is, likewise, an aspect of Hegel reading Heraclitus idealistically: “This one is not an abstraction, but the activity of dividing itself into opposites; the dead infinite is a poor abstraction as compared with the depths of Heraclitus. All that is concrete, as that God created the world, divided Himself, begot a Son, is contained in this determination.” Ibid., 284.
[40] “Precisely for the reason that existence is designated a species or kind, it is naked simple thought: nouς, simplicity, is substance. It is on account of its simplicity, its self-identity, that it appears steady, fixed, and permanent. But this self-identity is likewise negativity; hence that fixed and stable existence carries the process of its own dissolution within itself. The determinateness appears at first to be so solely through its relation to something else; and its process seems imposed and forced upon it externally. But its having its own otherness within itself, and the fact of its being a self-initiated process – these are implied in the very simplicity of thought itself. For this is self-moving thought, thought that distinguishes, is inherent inwardness, the pure notion. Thus, then, it is the very nature of understanding to be a process; and being a process it is Rationality.” Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, 114-115.
[41] Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 283; “If we look more closely at the particular form worn by a philosophy we see that it arises, on the one hand, from the living originality of the spirit whose work and spontaneity have reestablished and shaped the harmony that has been rent; and on the other hand, from the particular form of the dichotomy from which the system emerges. Dichotomy is the source of the need of philosophy…Life eternally forms itself by setting up oppositions, and totality at the highest pitch of living energy is only possible through its own re-establishment out of the deepest fission…When the might of union vanishes from the life of men and the antitheses lose their living connection and reciprocity and gain independence, the need of philosophy arises. From this point of view the need is contingent. But with respect to the given dichotomy the need is the necessary attempt to suspend the rigidified opposition between subjectivity and objectivity; to comprehend the achieved existence of the intellectual and real world as a becoming.” G.W.F. Hegel, The Difference Between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy, eds. H. S. Harris and Walter Cerf (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), 89, 91.
[42] “Each of the parts of philosophy is a philosophical whole, a circle rounded and complete in itself. In each of these parts, however, the philosophical Idea is found in a particular specificality or medium. The single circle, because it is a real totality, bursts through the limits imposed by its special medium, and gives rise to a wider circle. The whole of philosophy in this way resembles a circle of circles. The Idea appears in each single circle, but, at the same time, the whole Idea is constituted by the system of these peculiar phases, and each is a necessary member of the organization.” Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, 20.
[43] “By describing its circle it expands itself as the subject of the circle and thus describes a self-expanding circle, a spiral.” Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, tran. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 746; “The circle in which simple reproduction moves, alters its form, and, to use Sismondi’s expression, changes into a spiral.” Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I Book One: The Process of Production of Capital (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1983), 545; “The capitalistic mode of production moves in these two forms of the antagonism immanent to it from its very origin. It is never able to get out of that ‘vicious circle’ which Fourier had already discovered. What Fourier could not, indeed, see in his time is that this circle is gradually narrowing; that the movement becomes more and more a spiral, and must come to an end, like the movement of the planets, by collision with the centre.” Engels, Anti-Dühring, 324; “Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral.” V.I. Lenin, “On the Question of Dialectics,” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 361.
[44] Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’,” 225.
[45] Ibid., 223. This is what Engels, decades later, would refer to as “the dialectical method and…the communist world outlook.” See, Engels, Anti-Dühring, 13.
[46] Karl Marx, “Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 1: 1835-1843 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 64.
[47] “Philosophy, as long as a drop of blood shall pulse in its world-subduing and absolutely free heart, will never grow tired of answering its adversaries with the cry of Epicurus: Not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them, is truly impious. Philosophy makes no secret of it. The confession of Prometheus: ‘In simple words, I hate the pack of gods,’ is its own confession, its own aphorism against all heavenly and earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity. It will have none other beside…Prometheus is the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar.” Ibid., 30-31.
[48] Marx, Grundrisse, 361.
[49] “In other words, the Notion is the soul of all, thus it is self-moving, i.e. it is God. This is the very basis of Hegel’s dialectic. Contrariwise, the premise of Marx’s dialectic is human activity, and in the first place, labour.” Jason Devine, “Dialectical logic in Plato’s ‘Parmenides’, Hegel’s ‘Logic’ and Marx’s ‘Critique of Political Economy’,” accessed 4 February 2019, http://links.org.au/dialectical-logic-plato-parmenides-hegel-marx-critique-political-economy.
[50] Marx, Grundrisse, 360-361.
[51] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1981), 132.
[52] Ibid., 132.
[53] “The nearer to our time the economists whom we have to judge, the more severe must our judgment become. For while Smith and Malthus found only scattered fragments, the modern economists had the whole system complete before them: the consequences had all been drawn; the contradictions came clearly enough to light; yet they did not come to examining the premises, and still accepted the responsibility for the whole system. The nearer the economists come to the present time, the further they depart from honesty. With every advance of time, sophistry necessarily increases, so as to prevent economics from lagging behind the times. This is why Ricardo, for instance, is more guilty than Adam Smith, and McCulloch and Mill more guilty than Ricardo.” Frederick Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy,” in Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1981), 154.
[54] As Marx’s studies progressed and his understanding matured, he later distinguished between labour and labour power.
[55] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 132-133.
[56] Marx, Grundrisse, 101.
[57] “The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity.” Karl Marx, “Theses On Feuerbach,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 617.
[58] “All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice… The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Ibid., 617.
[59] Karl Marx, “Marx to P.V. Annekov,” in Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy: Answer to the “Philosophy of Poverty” by M. Proudhon (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), 174.
[60] “So out of sense-perception comes to be what we call memory, and out of frequently repeated memories of the same thing develops experience; for a number of memories constitute a single experience. From experience again–i.e. from the universal now stabilized in its entirety within the soul, the one beside the many which is a single identity within them all-originate the skill of the craftsman and the knowledge of the man of science, skill in the sphere of coming to be and science in the sphere of being…When one of a number of logically indiscriminable particulars has made a stand, the earliest universal is present in the soul: for though the act of sense-perception is of the particular, its content is universal–is man, for example, not the man Callias. A fresh stand is made among these rudimentary universals, and the process does not cease until the indivisible concepts, the true universals, are established: e.g. such and such a species of animal is a step towards the genus animal, which by the same process is a step towards a further generalization.” Aristotle, “Analytica Posteriora,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 185.
[61] “When Hegel endeavours—sometimes even huffs and puffs—to bring man’s purposive activity under the categories of logic, saying that this activity is the ‘syllogism’ (Schluß), that the subject (man) plays the role of a ‘member’ in the logical ‘figure’ of the ‘syllogism,’ and so on,—THEN THAT IS NOT MERELY STRETCHING A POINT, A MERE GAME. THIS HAS A VERY PROFOUND, PURELY MATERIALISTIC CONTENT. It has to be inverted: the practical activity of man had to lead his consciousness to the repetition of the various logical figures thousands of millions of times in order that these figures could obtain the significance of axioms. This nota bene.” V.I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Book The Science of Logic,” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 190.
[62] Aristotle, “Politica,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 1135.
[63] August Thalheimer, Introduction to Dialectical Materialism: The Marxist World-View (New York: Covici Friede, 1936), 62.
[64] Ibid., 60.
[65] Ibid., 61.
[66] Ibid., 61.
[67] Ibid., 62-63.
[68] Ibid., 63.
[69] Ibid., 63-64.
[70] Marc Shell, building on previous Marxist work, has offered the following brilliant insight: “The monetary form of exchange, which Plato feared, informs many fragments of Heraclitus. Of these, one of the most telling is the simple fragment that reads, ‘The way up and the way down are one and the same.’ Heraclitus of Ephesus refers not only to the transformations of fire (pyros tropai) but also to its monetary exchanges (chrysou antamoibai). The way up and the way down refer to sale and purchase. Ephesus, a port on the Mediterranean, was a trading center between Sardis (the capital of Lydia, where gold was minted) and major trading nations (such as Phoenicia). The way to which Heraclitus refers is (in part) a road like that between Sardis and its port, Ephesus.” Marc Shell, The Economy of Literature (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 60-61.
[71] George Thomson, Studies In Ancient Greek Society, Volume II: The First Philosophers (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1955), 282. For Thomson this influence logically extended beyond Heraclitus: “The power of abstraction embodied in the Platonic theory of Ideas and in Aristotelian logic was an intellectual product of the social relations created by the abstract process of commodity exchange.” Ibid, 321.
[72] Ibid., 301.
[73] Marc Shell is therefore not quite correct when he attributes the “ingenious” recognition of the connection between the development of commodity production and Greek philosophy to Thomson. See, Shell, The Economy of Literature, 39. The fact is that much of Thomson’s analysis traverses Thalheimer’s pioneering work. Whether the former read the latter is unknown, for Thomson does not cite him. Regardless, by the time Thomson was writing, Thalheimer had long ago been deemed persona non grata by the official Communist movement. See, Robert J. Alexander, The Right Opposition: The Lovestoneites and the International Communist Opposition of the 1930s (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981), 136-138.
[74] “In another section of his notebooks Lenin again connected Hegel and Marx. He wrote that ‘The beginning – the most simple, ordinary, mass, immediate ‘Being’: the single commodity (‘Sein’ in political economy). The analysis of it as a social relation. A double analysis, deductive and inductive – logical and historical (forms of value).’ Lenin directly maintained that both Hegel and Marx start with the barest category and, therefore, that the commodity plays the role of ‘Being’ in Capital. Lenin thus made an even more explicit equation between the two thinkers than he had previously suggested. This thought could have occurred to him in the course of his studies, or he could have had Engels’ well-known 1891 letter to Conrad Schmidt in mind, where Engels gave the latter advice in regards to studying Hegel. Engels, near the end of his letter, wrote that ‘If you compare development from commodity to capital in Marx with development from Being to Essence in Hegel you will get quite a good parallel: here the concrete development which results from facts; there the abstract construction.’ Lenin may have been thinking of this, but even if he did not, it does not truly matter. More importantly is that both Engels and Lenin drew a parallel between the process of development of the commodity and the basic categories of dialectical logic.” Jason Devine, “Dialectical logic in Plato’s ‘Parmenides’, Hegel’s ‘Logic’ and Marx’s ‘Critique of Political Economy’,” accessed 7 February 2019, http://links.org.au/dialectical-logic-plato-parmenides-hegel-marx-critique-political-economy.
[75] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 36-37.
[76] V.I. Lenin, “Plan of Hegel’s Dialectics (Logic). (Contents of the Small Logic (Encyclopaedia)),” in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 316. The three parts of Hegel’s Science of Logic are Being, Essence, and Concept, (also translated as Notion).
[77] “Alias: Man’s consciousness not only reflects the objective world, but creates it.” Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Book The Science of Logic,” 212.
[78] E.V. Ilyenkov, The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital (Moscow: Progress Publishers: 1982), 71-72; “On the contrary, following Spinoza and Marx, Ilyenkov didn’t act on the premise that a human is a dead automaton, but he starts from a living, object oriented active subject –an animal or a human…Just this mental train enables us finally to overcome the dead end of old psycho-physical dualism. The act of thought or psychic act doesn’t start in Ilyenkov’s logic from external stimulus, and doesn’t finish in meaningless mechanical response. It starts from spontaneous directed to its object activity of living subject.” Alexander Surmava, “Evald Ilyenkov and The End of Stimulus – Respond Paradigm” accessed 6 February 2019, http://www.academia.edu/340 90482/Evald _Ilyenkov_vs_Lev_Vygotsky.
[79] Marx, “Theses On Feuerbach,” 616.
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Trotskyism in China-Review by Charlie Hore

Posted by admin On December - 10 - 2018 Comments Off on Trotskyism in China-Review by Charlie Hore


Prophets Unarmed:
Chinese Trotskyists
in Revolution, War, Jail, and the Return from Limbo
Edited by Gregor Benton
Haymarket Books, 2017 · 1,269 pages · $55.00

In the early 1930s there were more Trotskyists in China than anywhere else outside Russia. The defeat of the Chinese revolution in 1927 was one of the decisive factors in the emergence of Trotskyism as a distinct body of thought, and a powerful influence in shifting Trotsky’s views on the nature of Stalinism. It is thus hardly surprising that those who had been on the sharp end of the defeat should be especially receptive to his critique. And yet the history of Chinese Trotskyism is hardly known even among Trotskyists today.1 This magisterial work, building on materials both previously translated and written by the editor, should do much to reverse that lack of knowledge. It is an inspiring story of perseverance against unimaginable odds to keep alive a revolutionary tradition.

There isn’t space here to do anything more than sketch the history of the 1927 revolution,2 but one thing was crucial to the rise of the Trotskyist opposition: the revolution was not just defeated, but betrayed.

Following the end of World War I, an upsurge in nationalist opposition to imperialist domination of China coincided with, and was strengthened by, a revolt among educated youth against the traditional values of the imperial system, which had collapsed in 1911 leaving no national authority in its place. As the movement deepened, it was joined by a newly awoken working class, whose numbers had increased greatly during the war, and soon began using strikes and boycotts against Chinese capitalists, as well as foreign ones. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in 1920 as a product of this ferment and of the hopes aroused by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. One of the two founders was Chen Duxiu, CCP leader in 1927, who would become a leading figure in the Trotskyist opposition.

In 1923 the CCP was instructed by the Communist International to join the Guomindang, the main nationalist party, not to take it over but “to do coolie work” for the nationalists, as Stalin put it. Although there were repeated objections from CCP members, the alliance held firm, largely because of the prestige of the Russian revolution but also because (it has to be said) the CCP was financially dependent on the Communist International.3

Russia also gave direct military support and training to the nationalists, whose army took advantage of warlord infighting and the strength of the workers movement to first take over Guangdong province and then launch a Northern Expedition to take all of China.

The villages in the path of the Expedition exploded, and strikes spread to all major cities after a mass shooting of protesters. But the more the movement grew, the more it threatened to go beyond a simply nationalist revolution, and consequently the more the nationalists tried to restrain it. Restraint became bloody repression in the spring of 1927, when the nationalists marched into Shanghai on the back of a general strike. More and more repression followed, until by the end of the year the CCP had effectively ceased to exist in the cities.

Trotsky had opposed the CCP entering the Guomindang, and by late 1926 he was arguing for their immediate withdrawal, while conceding that such a move still “presupposes—under existing conditions—a political bloc with the Guomindang or with particular elements of it . . .”4 By early 1927, however, he was arguing for a strategy of building soviets in China, and following the massacre in Shanghai he insisted on the need for a different political strategy that opposed both imperialism and the Chinese bourgeoisie:

The struggle against imperialism, precisely because of its economic and military power, demands a powerful exertion of forces from the very depths of the Chinese people. Really to arouse the workers and peasants against imperialism is possible only by connecting their basic and most profound life interests with the cause of the country’s liberation . . . But everything that brings the oppressed and exploited masses of the toilers to their feet inevitably pushes the national bourgeoisie into an open bloc with the imperialists. The class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the masses of workers and peasants is not weakened, but, on the contrary, is sharpened by imperialist oppression, to the point of bloody civil war at every serious conflict.5

He would later write in My Life “the opposition could not rise on the defeat of the Chinese revolution. The fact that our forecast had proved correct might attract one thousand, five thousand or even ten thousand new supporters to us. But for the millions the significant thing was not one forecast, but the fact of the crushing of the Chinese proletariat.”6

The birth of the opposition

This proved to be all too accurate, but among the new supporters attracted were significant numbers of Chinese students in Moscow—and through them growing numbers of CCP members inside China7—who had access not just to Trotsky’s writings on China but also the wider works of the opposition to Stalin. Some even took part in the last public opposition demonstrations in November 1927. And despite the increasing repression following Stalin’s rise to full power the following month, Trotsky’s arguments found a growing audience among Chinese revolutionaries trying to understand the causes of their defeat.

Wang Fanxi, one of the founders of Chinese Trotskyism, whose memoirs make up a substantial part of this book,8 wrote:

In the winter of 1928, the Opposition rapidly expanded its organization among the Chinese students in Moscow. We had comrades everywhere: in the Lenin Institute, in the various military academies and, in particular, at Sun Yatsen University where out of a total of four hundred students about one hundred and fifty were Trotskyists, either as members or as close sympathizers . . .

By 1930 almost all had been sent back to China, though the very last survivors disappeared into Stalin’s prison system. But there was no clear organization in China to draw them all together, and four separate groups emerged. Wang discusses them in detail in a chapter (478–503), which stresses that each “deliberately exaggerated our differences in order to justify the existence of our various factions” (482).

The differences were real, however, and one of the sharpest was over the role of Chen Duxiu. Chen was far and away the most important Communist to come over to the side of Trotsky, but for many younger Chinese revolutionaries his leadership of the CCP tainted him during the defeats of 1927. Chen himself was clearly scarred by his experiences, and loath to take a lead in the reorganization of the Chinese Trotskyists, looked instead to younger comrades to drive the process.

Among the most valuable sections in this book are two separate accounts of Chen’s political evolution and activity (586–693), as well as a selection of his later writings and letters (697–774). The two accounts are by Wang and Zheng Chaolin, the latter another founder of the movement whose memoirs also make up a large part of this work.9 Zheng was one of the first students to return to China in 1924, and worked closely with Chen throughout the revolution, witnessing a number of his clashes with the Russian advisors charged with ensuring the CCP’s obedience. In contrast, Wang only returned to China after the defeats of 1927, and was initially among those who opposed Chen. Their differing perspectives do much to bring into focus this contradictory and independent-minded figure, a giant of the revolutionary tradition, who deserves to be far better known than he is.10

Unification, prison, and war

Although Chen played a key role in bringing the four groups together in one organization, he later developed major differences with the group’s perspectives, and by his death in 1942 no longer considered himself a Trotskyist—though still a revolutionary. However, while Chen’s role was important, it was Trotsky’s that was decisive.

The terrain on which the Chinese Trotskyists were working in the early 1930s was confusing and hostile. The Guomindang’s terror had destroyed the organized labor movement in Shanghai and Guangdong and made any open political activity impossible in the territory under their control. Central and northern China were under the control of contending warlords, while in the northeast, Japanese forces were advancing from late 1931 onwards. The British colony of Hong Kong and the International Settlement in Shanghai—a British-run enclave in the heart of the city—ironically offered the least dangerous environments, though the Settlement’s police regularly handed over political prisoners to the Guomindang.

In early 1931 Trotsky wrote a letter to all the Trotskyist groups arguing for immediate unification—“fuse your organizations and your press definitively this very day!”11—which pushed the groups together, and produced a unified organization just five months later. The Chinese Left Opposition12 brought together a claimed 483 militants13 in a process that seemed to erase the old factional differences. Three weeks later, however, the Guomindang arrested almost the entire leadership, splintering the new organization. Some activity resumed in 1934 around the South African militant Frank Glass,14 who was almost the only link to the Trotskyist movement elsewhere. By 1935 a new leadership had managed to establish a monthly journal and a more irregular theoretical publication, both of which survived until 1942, though the journal never managed a print run of more than 200 copies (513).

But the political landscape had shifted again, with Japan having attacked the Chinese-governed parts of Shanghai in 1932 and now occupying almost all of northern China. Nationalist feelings were running high, and in the summer of 1936 the CCP and Guomindang announced a new alliance to oppose Japan’s invasion. The Trotskyists saw this—understandably, but wrongly—as an extension of the “popular front” policies that Communist parties were following in Europe and denounced the CCP for “abandoning” the Red Armies. In practice, Mao Zedong’s strategy was quite the opposite, and in the war against Japan the CCP built the armies, which would bring them to power in 1949.

Frank Glass sent Trotsky a report on the state of the movement in early 1940, which is almost the only outsider’s account that we have.15 He noted, “Comrades differ in their estimation of our strength. Some put the figure at 500; others state that 200 is more accurate. The war has made it impossible to ascertain the correct position.” He gave a bleak picture of the various repressive forces making activity difficult, but also stressed what they had managed to achieve: two more or less regular publications; numbers of leaflets; and translations of Trotsky, Victor Serge and Ignazio Silone among others. Their activity had attracted a public attack from the CCP, which among the usual lies more inventively alleged, “almost all Trotskyites are homosexuals and hold orgies in bathhouses”!

Divisions had already opened up on the attitude that the Trotskyists should take toward the opposition to Japan, with Chen breaking with the group in favor of complete support for the “war of national resistance.” Individuals joined guerrilla groups and in two cases led them, but the organization as a whole took a position of critical support, though there was little they could do about this practically.

America’s declaration of war on Japan in 1941 led to a formal split, however, with one group arguing that the war in China had become part of an imperialist war, and that revolutionaries should therefore be opposed to all sides. Personal divisions going back to the mid-1920s (a constant thread running through this volume, unfortunately) undoubtedly deepened the split, but the political differences were clear enough. Wang and Zheng were both part of the minority, while the majority was led by Peng Shuzhi, whose rather self-serving account to the American SWP in 1947 is given here (followed by a response from Wang).

Japan’s surrender in August 1945 opened up again the possibility of open activity, though the ranks of both groups had been depleted by wars, prison, and attacks from both the Guomindang and the CCP. The two groups had between them half the numbers of those represented at the unification conference—something over 200 people, with most members in Shanghai. But both were able to gain a wider audience, with the minority producing a (short-lived) magazine with a print-run of 2,000 copies, while both moved toward declaring themselves a party.

The end of the war with Japan was followed almost immediately by the civil war, which pitted the CCP’s armies, massively strengthened by years of guerrilla warfare, and against the Guomindang armed by the USA. The Trotskyists shared the general view that the CCP could not win—as late as 1947 Wang could write that “the civil war is devoid of any perspective, and is even doomed to failure because of its Stalinist domination,” while the majority spoke of their coming defeat as “caused by the treacherous politics of the party [the CCP] and the Kremlin.”

1949 and afterwards

By 1949, however, the outcome was inevitable. The majority moved its leadership out of China to Hong Kong, while the minority voted to stay “based on the simple conviction that it was better for a revolutionary organization of the working class to go down fighting than quit the field without a contest.”

After 1949 an illegal journal was again published, and Trotskyists led strikes and other struggles in Shanghai and Guangdong, while the CCP both repressed and tried to co-opt them. But in December 1952, a coordinated national roundup arrested every known Trotskyist as well as many relatives and suspected sympathizers—something like a thousand people in all, according to Zheng. As far as is known, the repression was complete. Relatives and those who had no political connection were released, but those who stuck to their views were given long sentences and then sent to “reform-through-labor” farms or factories16 after their formal release. In 1979 the last twelve surviving prisoners, including Zheng, were released.

How did they understand what had happened in 1949? According to Wang, he originally took a “bureaucratic collectivist” position, while Zheng saw the new regime as “state capitalist,” but by 1950 both had come around to a position of welcoming the revolution.17 Wang adhered to the postwar “orthodox Trotskyist” position that China, like the Stalinist states in eastern Europe, had become a “deformed workers’ state,” arguing that the CCP had somehow kept its character as a working-class party throughout the 1930s and 1940s and was thus still a revolutionary force.

Peng, who was to be for decades the Fourth International’s China spokesman, arrived at the same conclusion but by a different route. For him the CCP’s victory was largely due to exceptional circumstances, and he asserted that the move towards a workers’ state had happened because the CCP had been transformed through recruiting workers in the early 1950s. He finished his report to the FI’s Third World Congress in 1951 by arguing that the CCP was “in transition to a workers’ party” and that China was “moving in the direction of a deformed dictatorship of the proletariat.”

What neither grasped was that the CCP had become a nationalist party, and crucially a better nationalist party than the Guomindang, which was what had enabled it to become an independent force capable of imposing itself on Chinese society as a new ruling class. 1949 was indeed a revolution—but a nationalist one, not a working-class one.

Trotsky’s view that only the working class could lead a revolution that overthrew the landowners became a constricting dogma, arguing that because the landowners had been overthrown, the new regime must therefore be a working-class one. But if Mao’s Red Army could somehow “represent” the working class, then so could other groups of guerrillas or, for that matter, radical army officers.18 In the process, the idea that the emancipation of the working class was necessarily the act of the working class slipped out of sight.

Could the Trotskyists have done anything differently to better their chances of having an influence on events? For Benton and Wang the answer is yes: they should have recognized that the locus of struggle had moved to the countryside and sought to build guerrilla groups as part of the resistance to Japan. Leaving aside the huge difficulties in transplanting a group of mostly urban intellectuals into the Chinese countryside in the 1930s (which, to be fair, both recognize), this misses the more basic point that the politics of collective working-class organization cannot simply be replicated among peasants. Being, as the saying goes, determines consciousness.

Elsewhere Benton describes well the evolution of the CCP: “A regular army was built up that, though less cruel and corrupt than the Guomindang forces, insisted like any army on discipline, regimentation, secrecy and a top-down structure of command. These qualities, which are radically incompatible with democracy, rubbed off thickly on the CCP; military norms increasingly came to rule political life in the Communist areas.”19 Had the Trotskyists managed to implant themselves in the villages, it would have been almost impossible to prevent the same happening to them.

In reality, they were a tiny and isolated group of revolutionary socialists, living through some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century, and at different times persecuted by the Western powers in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and elsewhere by the Guomindang, the Japanese, and the CCP. That they survived at all is a major achievement.


In this short review I have concentrated on the basic history, but there is much more to discover in this marvelous volume—a long section on the Trotskyists and literature, for example, as well as some fascinating insights into life in revolutionary Russia in the mid-1920s. Two points are worth emphasizing in conclusion. The first is how readable this collection is. Twelve hundred pages looks impossibly daunting, but by presenting different voices in thematic sections the editor has made this a very approachable and readable work.

The second point is that while the overall arc of the narrative may be one of defeat, the tone is anything but. Wang and Zheng, in particular, are not mourning their fates but celebrating and critically analyzing both what they achieved and what they failed to achieve, as lessons offered to the future. We owe it to their memories to pay attention to this surely definitive account of a crucial part of our history.

Chinese Trotskyism gets just two pages in Isaac Deutscher’s The Prophet Outcast, and none in Tony Cliff’s The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star.
The essential history is Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, most recently reprinted by Haymarket Books.
“Expenses for the central organs of the party during the fall and winter of 1921 to 1922 had totalled 17,500 Chinese dollars, of which the Comintern had provided 16,665 dollars.” Jonathan Spence, Mao (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1999), 67.
Leon Trotsky, On China (New York: Monad Books, 1976), 116. This is a much fuller collection of Trotsky’s writings on China than the earlier collection Problems of the Chinese Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967). Problems, however, is available online: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/pcr/index.htm.
Trotsky, On China,161, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/pcr/01.htm.
Leon Trotsky, My life (London: Penguin Books, 1975) 553, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/mylife/. The quote is from chapter 42.
Victor Serge asserted that these even included Mao Zedong, who “was very close to us in his ideas, but . . . stayed close to the party to keep his supplies of weapons and munitions.” Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (New York: New York Review of Books, 2012), 257. His political opponents often described Mao as a “Trotskyite”, but this was simply a standard political insult. None of the biographies of Mao, nor this collection, repeat this assertion, and I think we have to conclude that Serge was misinformed.
Originally published as Wang Fanxi, Chinese Revolutionary: Memoirs 1919–1949 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), reissued with an additional final chapter as Wang Fanxi, Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).
Zheng Chaolin, An Oppositionist for Life (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1997). The chapter on Chen Duxiu in the present volume is, however, from China’s Urban Revolutionaries: Explorations in the History of Chinese Trotskyism, edited by Gregor Benton (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996).
In English there is just one biography (Lee Feigon, Chen Duxiu, Founder of the Chinese Communist Party, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983) and a collection of later writing from which the selections here are taken (Chen Duxiu’s Last Articles and Letters, 1937–1942, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1984).
The letter is oddly not in this volume, but it is in Trotsky’s On China, 492–500. Emphasis in the original.
Formally, it was the Left Opposition of the Chinese Communist Party, as Trotsky’s perspective was still reclaiming the Communist parties for revolutionary politics. By 1931 this was pretty much a dead letter everywhere, and it is notable that Trotsky’s letter didn’t mention the CCP. Apart from arguing for a critically supportive attitude to the peasant “Red Armies.”
Figure from Benton (ed), China’s Urban Revolutionaries, 35.
Glass’s story is told in Baruch Hirson, The Restless Revolutionary (London: Porcupine Press, 2003).
First published in the journal Revolutionary History, vol.2, no.4, (Spring 1990), https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backissu.htm.
A system where prisoners having served their formal sentences remain detained, though usually under less unpleasant conditions than in prison. Zheng Chaolin was sent to a glassworks in central Shanghai, where his wife joined him.
Wang had somehow been in touch with the US Workers’ Party, which had published his reply to Peng Shuzi’s 1947 report. There seems to be no surviving record of his and Zheng’s original positions.
See Tony Cliff’s ‘Deflected Permanent Revolution’ for an elaboration of this point: https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1963/xx/permrev.htm.
Benton, China’s Urban Revolutionaries, 117.

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Trotskyology-Christian Høgsbjerg

Posted by admin On December - 3 - 2018 Comments Off on Trotskyology-Christian Høgsbjerg


A review of John Kelly, Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain (Routledge, 2018), £29.99

Leon Trotsky, the organiser of the October 1917 insurrection and founder of the Red Army, cannot be dismissed by anyone lightly. However, amid the academic literature on social movements the role played by Trotskyists has often been a much maligned, caricatured and marginalised phenomenon—dismissed as part of the “old” left rather than the “new”. This is despite the fact that—or perhaps because—Trotskyist activists and organisations, certainly in Britain, have often had a presence, resilience and staying power greater than shorter-lived autonomist and anarchist style formations.

Indeed, it is a little puzzling that there is such a general weakness in the academic literature on social movements. Trotskyists have played a critical, leading role in many mass movements in post-war British history such as the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (1966-71), the Anti-Nazi League (1977-81), the Anti Poll Tax Federation (1989-91) and the Stop the War Coalition (2001-). There is a welcome sign, however, that this vacuum is beginning to be filled, with the recent edited collection Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley,1 and now a well-researched and generally well-informed monograph from John Kelly analysing contemporary British Trotskyism. Kelly is a sociologist and the author of an important 1988 work Trade Unions and Socialist Politics which was the subject of a debate, to which Kelly himself contributed, in the pages of International Socialism.2

However, Contemporary Trotskyism is not without its flaws, and not merely because, as a former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Kelly falls into occasional minor errors—for those errors are themselves arguably revealing of a more general lack of understanding. Critically, both the strengths and limitations of Kelly’s work flow from his approach and methods, which are those of an academic sociologist. He is at pains to try to understand Trotskyist groups not through a revolutionary Marxist lens but instead as “comprising elements of the political party, the doctrinal sect and the social movement”. Nonetheless, despite his weak underlying theoretical framework, Kelly has undertaken painstaking empirical research into the records and publications of various groups, archival studies of internal bulletins and papers and interviews with leading members of different Trotskyist organisations. His book is thought-provoking and in some senses provides a useful frame through which to reflect and take stock of where the revolutionary socialist movement in Britain currently stands, just over a century after the Russian Revolution of 1917. He has discussions of all manner of aspects of political activism associated with British Trotskyism, including for example its relationship to building wider social movements, levels of party recruitment, organisational resources, international affiliations, electoral performance and, last but not least, work in trade unions. His overall periodisation of the British Trotskyist movement, from formation (1932-49), the “bleak years” of 1950-65 and the “golden age” of 1966-85, through to “disintegration” (1985-2004) and “stasis” from 2004 to the present, is generally persuasive and will ring true with the experiences of activists.

From 500 or so members—mainly organised trade unionists—in the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1944, by the start of the 1950s and after a series of splits, the movement, as Kelly notes, “comprised no more than 100 people in three small groups, all working inside the Labour Party but with almost no presence or influence inside the trade union movement”. Kelly sadly does not dwell on the major theoretical crisis of the 1940s. This arose when Trotsky’s rather catastrophist prognosis and perspectives for the future, outlined in his 1938 The Transitional Programme with its talk of “the death agony of ­capitalism”, made it difficult for the movement to orientate towards what became the greatest economic boom in the history of capitalism after the Second World War. The continuation of the Soviet Union, and indeed expansion of the Stalinist regimes across Eastern Europe, also confounded Trotsky’s expectations about its likely ability to survive the war. The three small groups during the 1950s—the Socialist Review Group around Tony Cliff (which later became the International Socialists and then the Socialist Workers Party, associated with this journal), the Club around Gerry Healy (later the Socialist Labour League and then the Workers Revolutionary Party) and the Revolutionary Socialist League around Ted Grant (later the Militant Tendency)—grew into substantial organisations from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, as the level of class struggle rose to its height in the 1970s. “From a little over 1,500 members in 1965 the movement grew rapidly over the next 20 years, reaching almost 4,000 by the 1970s, nearly 10,000 by 1980 and peaking at over 20,000 in 1985”.3

The downturn in industrial struggle by this point—and the refusal of many Trotskyist groups to face up to this reality—led to the disintegration of, for example, the WRP (analysed by Duncan Hallas at the time4). The Militant Tendency, with its long-term “entryist” approach to the Labour Party, had benefitted from the rise of left reformism around Tony Benn in the early 1980s, as thousands of former revolutionaries, disillusioned by the collapse of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, joined the Labour Party. Yet the Militant were not strong enough to resist Neil Kinnock’s witch-hunt against them, leading to their collapse and split in 1992, and the formation of the Socialist Party (SP) outside Labour.

The SWP, thanks to Cliff’s analysis of the Soviet Union as bureaucratic state capitalist, had better weathered the collapse of Stalinism than its competitors on the far-left, who generally saw the Soviet Union as in some sense “socialist” or a “workers’ state”. But the generally falling levels of class struggle during the 1990s meant the party was unable to sustain its membership. Accordingly, as Kelly notes, by 2004 “the entire Trotskyist movement had shrunk to 6,500 members, less than one-third of its 1985 peak”. Since 2005, amid right-wing Labour governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and then the economic crisis and brutal austerity pursued by the Tories since 2010, and amid various further splits and crises, Kelly notes a “limited and uneven recovery” of membership to around 9,500 or so in 2016. The generally very low level of class struggle has, however, meant ideas of “working class self-emancipation” through revolution from below still seem very abstract to most, and many radicals young and old instead look to the more “realistic” option of change through parliamentary socialism, in part explaining the return of left reformism around Jeremy Corbyn.

It is a pity in a sense that Kelly’s book did not come out a year or so earlier. Amid the rise of Corbynism since 2015, the Labour right around Tom Watson and various others in the liberal media made repeated attempts to whip up hysteria and a “red scare” around apparent “Trotsky entryists” in the Labour Party, with various purges of Labour members carried out by Blairite apparatchiks, who apparently jokingly referred to what they were doing as “Operation Icepick”. If Kelly’s book had been available at the time, it might have been possible to keep a sense of proportion about the potential influence of 9,500 Trotskyists in Britain while hundreds of thousands joined (or re-joined) the Labour Party, and not least because the two largest and most important British Trotskyist groups—the SWP and the SP—were not even trying to encourage their members to engage in “entryism”.

Kelly’s main underlying analysis is that a Trotskyist group—and essentially any Marxist group—represents “an organisational hybrid” of party, sect and movement. This argument is problematic in the sense it applies abstractions from political science—for example, the bourgeois “political party”, to attempts to build a revolutionary workers’ party for very different ends and purposes.

Kelly argues that the Trotskyist group comprises “elements of the social movement”, suggesting that “Trotskyist organisations occasionally seek to build broad coalitions of social forces around a specific issue or demand and to that extent they function as social movements”. Of course, the challenge and task for any Trotskyist group is to grow to a size where it can become not only embedded and make a difference in shaping the outcomes of the wider labour movement and class struggle, but also help to form and shape wider “social movements” such as those around fighting austerity, cuts, racism, fascism, climate change and so on.

Yet we also have a much greater task and historic mission. Without understanding the sense in which “contemporary Trotskyism” in general sees itself as standing in a longer tradition going back not only to Leon Trotsky but the whole wider tradition of classical, revolutionary Marxism associated with Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci—and even before that to pioneering revolutionary socialists such as Gracchus Babeuf, one can only wonder—as Kelly does—at why “the Trotskyist movement is remarkably resilient despite the failure to achieve its overarching objective”—revolution. Because Kelly avoids discussing the 1930s and 1940s period in any detail, he fails to understand fully the conditions in which Trotsky and his tiny band of followers fought “against the stream” to keep alive the genuine revolutionary socialist tradition amid the rise of fascism and Stalinism and so fails to understand the intellectual and political formation of those who would lead British Trotskyism in the post-war period. The likes of Cliff, Grant and Healy saw how close the genuine Marxist tradition was to being extinguished in that period. Therefore, it is not surprising they had the tenacity to emerge as leading figures during the “bleak years” of the 1950s and give younger comrades a sense of revolutionary experience and tradition. Cliff was able to console despondent comrades during the downturn in class struggle during the 1980s by saying, “if you think this is bad, you should have seen the 1930s”.

Kelly’s real detachment from understanding this essential aspect of the Trotskyist movement as part of a longer revolutionary socialist tradition is highlighted when he terms the Marxist doctrine underpinning contemporary Trotskyism as “rigid and unhelpful” and its vision of world revolution as ­“millenarian”. Of course one does not have to look far to find examples of tiny Trotskyist sects that are resilient, but also seemingly stuck in a 1938 time warp and hence with a dogmatic outlook on the world that is far removed from 21st century realities. However, the key issue that has to be explained is not this phenomenon as such, intriguing to some as it no doubt is, but the continuing relative resilience and resonance among a wider audience on the left of bigger groups like the SWP and SP—and this can only be done with detailed reference to their actual specific political theory and practice, which Kelly sadly does not do.

Those hoping for a narrative that might seriously build on the pioneering historical work undertaken by Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson in the 1980s on the early years of British Trotskyism5 and take the story to the present will therefore only be disappointed by Contemporary Trotskyism. Of course to undertake such a historical work may be asking too much of any individual—it took Ian Birchall a decade to work on his fine biography of just one key individual, Tony Cliff. For someone to extend that kind of work to the movement as a whole would be a labour of love that it is hard to see anyone completing anytime in the foreseeable future.6

While Kelly’s work is then scholarly and sophisticated in its own way, its framing academic sociological method and approach mean he necessarily misses much of interest and importance about the contemporary British Trotskyist movement—not only aspects of the institutional, political and organisational history but also the sense of personality, lived experience and cultural dimensions of the movement in all its richness (and, yes at times, also ridiculousness). To be fair there are glimpses of this here and there—Kelly notes how: “an invitation to an International Marxist Group cadre school in 1980 listed the usual attractions with speakers such as Tariq Ali, Robin Blackburn and Ernest Mandel, as well as movies and then continued, ‘An event not to be missed is the Saturday afternoon cricket match between Socialist Challenge and Socialist Worker’.”7

But it might have been nice for example to have included at least some ­passing acknowledgement of the role played by Trotskyist activists in the formation of Rock Against Racism, which Stuart Hall called “one of the timeliest and best constructed of cultural interventions, repaying serious and extended analysis” (and then its subsequent organisational form, Love Music Hate Racism).8 Or how the Redskins band, whose first single was called “Lev Bronstein” and their album titled Neither Washington Nor Moscow, helped take the revolutionary socialist politics of the SWP to a wider popular audience in the “golden age” of British Trotskyism.

Kelly rightly acknowledges many critical moments where British Trotskyist groups punched above their weight and helped make a significant difference to wider national politics, from the role played by the International Group (later better known as the International Marxist Group) in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, the Militant Tendency in the Anti Poll Tax Federation, and the SWP in the Anti-Nazi League and the Stop the War Coalition.9 As Kelly notes, “Trotskyist involvement in social movements has contributed significantly to their standing and reputation”, but “paradoxically, social movement success has rarely translated into Trotskyist organisational success and indeed it is more common to find an inverse relationship between the two: during the heyday of the ANL and the Anti Poll Tax Federation their respective creators (the SWP and the Militant Tendency) both suffered significant erosion of membership”.10

One of the many reasons Kelly suggests for this is that “the downplaying of doctrine that has proved essential for social movement success obscures the relevance of Trotskyist ideas and the perceived necessity for a Trotskyist organisation”. Joseph Choonara, in his review of Kelly’s work in Socialist Review, has discussed this issue in some detail, rightly noting that there is not such a contradiction between “social movement building” and Marxist “doctrine” as Kelly maintains: “organisations such as the ANL and, more recently, Stand Up to Racism, embody the spirit of Trotsky’s united front, creatively applied to the present”.11 However, Kelly’s more general point remains pertinent—and raises a key question about how, when Trotskyist groups take on organisational responsibilities for wider social movements, they can often fail fully to engage in political debate and argument alongside joint work, leading to “united fronts” being a route out of revolutionary politics instead of helping the growth of revolutionary organisations. In some ways British Trotskyism benefitted in the past from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) putting party resources into running wider social movements (for example around CND or the Anti-Apartheid Movement), leaving Trotskyists freer to concentrate their resources and energies on “party-building”. Rightly, British Trotskyists have tried and often succeeded in filling the vacuum resulting from the long decline of the CPGB in the post-war period in “social movement organising”. But Kelly’s work is a timely reminder that it is not at all automatic that the revolutionary left will be the beneficiaries of such campaigning work.

Moreover, while it is often the case, as Kelly argues, that “the conditions for movement success—specific and achievable goals, the downplaying of doctrine and a broad coalition of social forces—calls into question the necessity for a fundamental challenge to capitalism”, this is not always the case. The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, Anti Poll Tax Federation and Stop the War Coalition could be said to be limited in a sense to specific and achievable goals—such as stopping the war. But the fact that the Stop the War Coalition continues to operate points not only to its limited success in stopping imperialist ­interventions but also to the fact that we are in a period of permanent warfare as a result of intensifying inter-imperialist rivalries. The Anti-Nazi League played a critical role in smashing the fascist National Front, and could be described as a coalition that came together for that specific purpose. But the continued need for anti-fascist and anti-racist campaigning does raise a wider issue about a crisis-ridden system under which both racism and fascism continue to regenerate themselves.

Choonara also rightly notes the slightly problematic nature of the characterisation of what Kelly calls “the seven Trotskyist families”—“mainstream”, “third camp”, “orthodox”, “institutional”, “radical”, “workerist” and “Latin American”. Though to try and unpick and more accurately make sense of all the nuances of the different varieties of Trotskyist groupings—Kelly estimates there were some 22 “contemporary British Trotskyist organisations” in existence in 2017, and 23 “Fourth Internationals” 80 years after Trotsky founded his original in 1938—would probably be a feat beyond even the most dedicated student of Trotskyism. It also says something about the weakness of Kelly’s approach that he tries to give more or less equal attention to minuscule outfits that barely even deserve the name “sect”, and groups like the SWP and SP, as if they were somehow comparable in terms of significance. Alex Callinicos’s 1990 work Trotskyism far more usefully underlines some of the major fundamental theoretical differences which emerged in the Cold War period, and should be consulted by those who want to explore this issue further. As Callinicos noted, after Trotsky’s murder at the hands of a Stalinist agent in 1940:

The subsequent history of Trotskyism was shaped by the great crisis of the 1940s, precipitated by the refutation of Trotsky’s predictions about the Second World War and its outcome. The differing responses made to this crisis irrevocably shattered the unity of the Trotskyist movement and produced three main theoretico-political strands, radically different from one another but all deriving from Trotsky: the “orthodox Trotskyism” of the various Fourth Internationals; those revisions of orthodoxy which tended to imply a break with classical Marxism ([Max] Shachtman and [Cornelius] Castoriadis, for example); and the International Socialist tradition founded by Cliff, whose critique of orthodox Trotskyism was conceived rather as a return to classical Marxism.12

What Kelly calls the “extraordinarily fissiparous character of world Trotskyism” is undeniable. Kelly blames Trotsky himself for some of this, noting for example that in 1933 Trotsky wrote “with real enthusiasm about the benefits of a split” among his French followers in the Communist League, on the grounds that “what will be lost—partly only temporarily—will be regained a hundredfold already at the next stage”. It is of course right that sometimes organisational splits are indeed necessary—Kelly quotes Trotsky in 1931, again writing to the Communist League in France: “at times a split is a lesser evil. An organisation that is smaller but more unanimous can have enormous success with a correct policy, while an ­organisation which is torn by internal strife is condemned to rot”.13

Yet Kelly might have also noted that Trotsky and his followers tried to work in the Stalinised Communist International right up to the rise of the Nazis in 1933—the greatest defeat in the history of the workers’ movement—and the bankruptcy of Stalinism that this exposed. Only then did Trotsky work to rebuild a new International from scratch. As Trotsky himself wrote in 1923, while arguing for trying to remain and reform the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in the face of the rising Stalinist bureaucracy:

A Bolshevik is not merely a disciplined person; he is a person who in each case and on each question forges a firm opinion of his own and defends it ­courageously and independently, not only against his enemies, but inside his own party. Today, perhaps, he will be in the minority in his organisation. He will submit, because it is his party. But this does not always signify that he is in the wrong. Perhaps he saw or understood before the others did a new task or the necessity of a turn. He will persistently raise the question a second, a third, a tenth time, if need be. Thereby he will render his party a service, helping it to meet the new task fully armed or to carry out the necessary turn without organic upheavals, without fractional convulsions.14

As Charlie van Gelderen, a South African Trotskyist who had been active in Britain since the 1930s and who had attended the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938 noted (when reflecting on the 60th anniversary of this event in 1998): “Sectarian splits have been a chronic ailment of our movement. Minorities split off on the slightest pretext to form tiny sects, impotent and without any future. How different to Trotsky who persisted in his adherence to the Third International until 1933 and the utter defeat of the German working class”.15

Kelly is unable to make sense of this characteristic tendency of Trotskyist groups towards sectarian splits, with its original roots in the legacy of Trotsky’s mistaken perspectives and the theoretical crisis it bequeathed the 1940s Trotskyist movement after his murder. Matters were not helped by Trotsky’s tactical error to launch the Fourth International in 1938, at a time when the Trotskyist movement was minuscule and facing a barrage of Stalinist slander and terror. Modelled on the Communist International—which had been a mass organisation—but without even Trotsky’s leadership after 1940, the leaders who subsequently came to take the helm of a few thousand Trotskyists aspiring to be the “world party of socialist revolution” could only suffer inevitable delusions of grandeur. Yet as Callinicos noted, there were other critical issues as well—the very small size of the movement and its general historic isolation from the mass of working class struggles meant “the inability to influence events is itself likely to encourage splits: since there is no way of settling differences in analysis or policy by practical tests, why not break away?”.

In the 21st century, the growing volatility of international politics and continuing instability of the world economy, the resurgence of a racist populist right internationally emboldened by Trump, and the historic experience of left reformist governments in office, lessons confirmed by failings of the current Syriza government in Greece, mean that the importance of renewing Marxist theory to help make sense of the contemporary world crisis, and of continuing to build mass anti-racist and anti-fascist movements alongside revolutionary socialist organisation with roots in the British working class movement cannot be understated. If revolutionaries today want to understand something of the history of British Trotskyism in order to arm themselves for the struggles ahead, the writings of Duncan Hallas—a veteran British Trotskyist in his own right—on Trotsky and Trotskyism will arguably serve as a far better guide than John Kelly’s book. One of Hallas’s 1982 essays, on “Revolutionaries and the Labour Party”, on the historic experience of entryism, repays particular re-reading today given Corbynism. His conclusion to that essay remains relevant for the period we find ourselves in today:

The task of revolutionary socialists is to face reality, to recognise things as they are, to fight very hard in support of all the struggles that do occur, to seek to increase their numbers and influence on that basis, to apply the united front approach systematically and untiringly. It is also to patiently explain, to clarify what is and what is not revolutionary work. Both these tasks require a revolutionary party, operating openly under its own banner.16

Christian Høgsbjerg teaches history at the University of Brighton and is the co-editor of ­Marxism, Colonialism and Cricket: C L R James’s Beyond a Boundary (Duke University Press, 2018).


1 Smith and Worley, 2014.

2 Kelly, 1988; see also Kelly, 1989.

3 Kelly, 2018, p40.

4 Hallas, 1985.

5 See Bornstein and Richardson, 1986a and b.

6 Birchall, 2011. Birchall’s own review of Kelly’s Contemporary Trotskyism appears at Review 31. Go to http://review31.co.uk/article/view/553/was-it-all-futile

7 Kelly, 2018, p84.

8 For more on Trotskyist involvement in Rock Against Racism, see Goodyer, 2009 and Huddle and Saunders, 2016.

9 Clearly this sentence simplifies and obscures the role played by the other Trotskyist groups in the respective campaigns highlighted, for example IS/SWP were involved in the VSC and also Anti Poll Tax Federation, if not in leadership positions.

10 Kelly, 2018, pp213-214.

11 Choonara, 2018.

12 Callinicos, 1990.

13 Quoted in Kelly, 2018, p30.

14 Trotsky, 1923.

15 O’Malley, 2002.

16 Hallas, 1982.


Birchall, Ian, 2011, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time (Bookmarks).

Bornstein, Sam and Al Richardson, 1986a, Against the Stream: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1924-38 (Merlin Press).

Bornstein, Sam and Al Richardson, 1986b, War and the International: History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1937-49 (Socialist Platform).

Callinicos, Alex, 1990, Trotskyism (Open University Press).

Choonara, Joseph, 2018, “Trotskyism under the Spotlight”, Socialist Review (June), http://socialistreview.org.uk/436/trotskyism-under-spotlight

Goodyer, Ian, 2009, Crisis Music: The Cultural Politics of Rock Against Racism (Manchester University Press).

Hallas, Duncan, 1982, “Revolutionaries and the Labour Party”, International Socialism 16 (spring), www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1982/revlp/index.htm

Hallas, Duncan, 1985, “Cult Comes a Cropper”, Socialist Review (December), www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1985/12/cult.htm

Huddle, Roger, and Red Saunders (eds), 2016, Reminiscences of RAR: Rocking against Racism, 1976-1982 (Redwords).

Kelly, John, 1988, Trade Unions and Socialist Politics (Verso).

Kelly, John, 1989, “Reply to Jack Robertson”, International Socialism 42 (spring).

Kelly, John, 2018, Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties: Sects and Social Movements in Britain (Routledge).

O’Malley, Philomena, 2002, “Celebrating the Life of Charlie van Gelderen”, International Viewpoint (9 February), www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article521

Smith, Evan and Matthew Worley, 2014, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester University Press).

Trotsky, Leon, 1923, The New Course (Appendix 1, A Letter to Party Meetings), www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1923/newcourse/x01.htm
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Antonio Gramsci and the Modern Prince-Paul Le Blanc

Posted by admin On December - 2 - 2018 Comments Off on Antonio Gramsci and the Modern Prince-Paul Le Blanc


December 1, 2018 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – In this period of global crises and ferment, radical and revolutionary activists are reaching for modes of organization and political practice that can help advance their struggle for human liberation. For growing numbers, the political and organizational perspectives of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin are becoming a pole of attraction – providing an increasingly desired coherence and revolutionary edge. Yet the Leninist tradition can most fruitfully be understood not as providing dogmatic Truths fashioned by a revolutionary genius, but rather as a collective project and process, creatively fashioned and made relevant by insightful, passionate activists engaging with a variety of contexts.

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) offers an incredibly rich way of articulating and applying Leninist perspectives. As a Marxist, Gramsci saw future possibilities as being conditioned by past and present “objective” economic and social realities. But his thought was also alive to multiple possibilities – grounded in the understanding that not only are “objective” factors too complex and fluid to befullygrasped in analysis, but that the consciousness and actions of human beings (especially when informed by revolutionary theory and focused through effective organization) can alter the “objective” factors. Consistent with Lenin’s conceptualization of Marxism, this approach dovetails as well with that articulated by Georg Lukàcs in 1923-28.[1]

In the 1920s, Gramsci and Lukàcs were key leaders, respectively, in the Italian and Hungarian Communist parties. Each sought, at a moment when Stalinist influences were about to swamp the Communist movement with authoritarian and sectarian policies, to remain true to the principled revolutionary perspectives of the first four congresses of the Communist International. As Perry Anderson has noted, while in prison, Gramsci “categorically opposed [Stalin’s] ‘third period’ line from 1930 onwards, maintaining positions not unlike those of Lukàcs in 1928, which stressed the importance of intermediate democratic demands under fascism, and the vital need to win the alliance of the peasantry to overthrow it.”[2]

Gramsci and Lukàcs have been associated with a trend that has been given the misleading label of “Western Marxism,” associated with a diverse assortment of theorists including Karl Korsch, thinkers affiliated with the Frankfurt School (including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse), Henri Lefebvre, Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, and others. The so-called “Western Marxists” shared in common fairly sophisticated philosophical orientations, rejecting the intellectual narrowness of Stalinism as well as the somewhat rigid interpretation of Marxism associated with many of the so-called “orthodox Marxists” of the Second International (or Socialist International) of 1889-1914. They refused to view “subjective” factors of culture and consciousness as being merely reflections of “objective” economic factors. Questions of capitalism and socialism, and how to get from one to the other, could be adequately grasped – they insisted – only through engagement with both “subjective” and “objective” factors, whose interplay was far more complex than “vulgar Marxists” were inclined to acknowledge.[3]

Gramsci was profoundly influenced by the dialectical philosophical orientation of G.W.F. Hegel, popularized in Italy by such academics as Benedetto Croce and Antonio Labriola, and was vibrantly alive to a multiplicity of cultural questions. This approach emphasizes the complex dynamism and fluidity of reality, which can be understood as an evolving totality of contradictory and interactive elements. Economics and class conflict are central to him, but these are understood in rich interplay with history and culture. Far from being simply a philosophical culture critic, however, Gramsci was a political leader concerned with the practicalities of revolutionary strategy, tactics and organization within the revolutionary wing of the workers’ movement. Yet in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, with his political commitments all too often set aside, he has been a primary reference point in much “post-modernist” discourse dealing with innumerable (and often quite interesting) cultural issues. Abstracting his ideas from the person that he actually was, however, can distort the meaning of what he actually said.[4] An examination of one of his best known works, “The Modern Prince,” highlights Gramsci as a theorist focused on practical revolutionary politics.

Who Gramsci was

To gain a better sense of this remarkable person, we can first refer – all too fleetingly – to knowledgeable people who have written about Gramsci. If we consider our common humanity with this world-famous thinker, we might find meaningful entry-points for considering his ideas.

We are our bodies. “Antonio never grew to be more than four and three-quarters feet tall. He had two humps, one in front and the other in back, giving him a deformed appearance,” Gramsci scholar Dante Germino tells us. “His normal-sized head appeared huge and awkward on his short frame. He also walked lamely.” According to biographer Giuseppe Fiori, “from earliest childhood he was kept going by extraordinary will-power and a determination to make up in every possible way for his deformity.”[5]

We are shaped through experiences from childhood to youth. “As a boy he felt unloved, alienated, humiliated,” according to another scholar, John Cammett. Yet this seems too sweeping as we consider the tenderness and caring reflected in stories of and letters to family members (he was the fourth of seven children). There were certainly happy times as he grew up in the village of Ghilarza, on the island of Sardinia. Yet his father was a downwardly-mobile white-collar worker, a civil servant caught stealing, which resulted in a four-year imprisonment. Fiori also tells us “Antonio was deeply disturbed by the terrible poverty in the family after his father’s arrest, by the psychological repercussions of this calamity as well as by his own physical ailment.” For two years a teenage Gramsci was forced to labor for ten hours a day, six days a week plus Sunday mornings, in a physically demanding job at a local registry office. His interrupted education was finally resumed, largely through the family’s sacrificial efforts and his own hard work.[6]

We are what we feel. Writing in the 1970s, an editor of his prison letters, Lynne Lawner, commented that “local people still speak of a certain closed quality of his personality” during Gramsci’s adolescence, but that “he is mostly remembered for his cheerfulness, taste for jest and horseplay, and expansive character.” In letters to intimates, written in 1923-26, Gramsci refers on the one hand to memories of “colorful” childhood days “that bring back pleasure,” but also to “the other side of the coin,” musing: “My life has always been a spent flame, a desert.” There were awful memories in which “the sewer of my past brought things back up that for some time left me poisoned.” He wrote: “For many, many years I have been truly used to thinking of the absolute impossibility, almost a decree of fate, that I might be loved by somebody.” From the age of ten, “I was convinced I was a burden that intruded into my family.” He wrote of “a way of life that I have had since I was a boy . . . hiding my states of mind behind a hard mask or behind an ironic smile.”[7]

As a multiply-disadvantaged outsider striving to prove himself, his perceptions and his mind were naturally sharpened. As one observer at the time reported, he “dominated his own unhappiness with an iron will for study, making efforts way beyond the strength of his organism.” A brilliant student with a passion for reading (“I’m getting on like a house on fire,” he commented at the time), Gramsci won a scholarship that enabled him to enter the University of Turin in 1911. He had been reading Marxist pamphlets and the Socialist Party’s paper Avanti since his early teens. An older brother had become a militant in the Italian Socialist Party, but the younger sibling would make his own way politically. Dante Germino has emphasized, “the fact that Gramsci eventually became a revolutionary has everything to do with his early experience of injustices in Sardinian soil.”[8] Germino’s elaboration merits attention:
Gramsci particularly seethed over descriptions of Sardinians as biologically inferior to Italians on the mainland. He learned early to recognize the intellectually and morally disgraceful tendency of some who belong to social groups temporarily enjoying power, wealth, and prestige to attribute inequalities brought about by their own selfish policies to the genetic “inferiority” of the people who have been oppressed. As Togliatti expressed it, Gramsci “sought for the explanation for the poverty and backwardness of the island in the actual relationships that prevailed between the different social groups.” For Antonio Gramsci, Sardinia was the laboratory in which the injustice of the larger world could be measured. As an entity, Sardinia was oppressed by the mainland; as a reflection of the social order prevalent on the Italian peninsula, the island’s own social order reflected the pattern, prevalent in Italy, of oppression by the powerful over the weak.[9]

We are what we do. Within two years, Gramsci became an activist within the Italian Socialist Party. As was the case with a majority of his Socialist Party comrades, he opposed the First World War (1914), although took up his own position in the revolutionary wing of that party. In 1919 he helped to found a new weekly, L’Ordine Nuovo (New Order), which sought to apply the lessons of the 1917 Russian Revolution to Italy. This paper became the voice of militant factory workers who engaged in a general strike and factory occupations that in 1920 seemed to threaten the overturn of Italian capitalism and a workers’ revolution. Socialist Party moderates who led the trade union movement quickly effected a compromise, however, which ended the strike, resulting in modest concessions for the workers and the continued (if temporary) survival of a liberal capitalist regime.[10]

Frightened by the workers’ militancy, however, the landed aristocracy and industrialists concluded that a right-wing counter-force was needed, and they poured substantial resources into the rising fascist movement led by ex-socialist Benito Mussolini. Disgusted by the moderate Socialist sell-out, Gramsci and many others on the left end of the political spectrum concluded that a genuinely revolutionary workers’ party was needed. The result was the foundation of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1921.

Revolutionary leader

More than a key figure of the PCI in the early 1920s, Gramsci worked for the Communist International (or Third International) in Moscow and Vienna in this period. Victor Serge, who worked with him in the early Comintern in Vienna, remembering him as “an industrious and Bohemian exile, late to bed and late to rise,” tells us:
His head was heavy, his brow high and broad, his lips thin; the whole was carried on a puny, square-shouldered, weak-chested, humpbacked body. There was grace in the movement of his fine, lanky hands. Gramsci fitted awkwardly into the humdrum of day-to-day existence . . . indifferent to the comfort of his lodgings and the quality of his meals – but intellectually he was absolutely alive. Trained intuitively in the dialectic, quick to uncover falsehood and transfix it with the sting of irony, he viewed the world with an exceptional clarity.[11]

The rise and succession of victories of the fascist movement was a major concern to Gramsci and his comrades, but there was no agreement on appropriate perspectives for the PCI. Gramsci developed a perspective that was independent of the moderate line advanced by Angelo Tasca and also an alternative to what he saw as a sectarian and ultra-left line represented by Amadeo Bordiga. His perspective became predominant in the PCI, and he was considered to be its central leader. His columns in the Communist daily L’Unitá profoundly influenced and helped to educate his party’s working-class base. Gramsci was elected to parliament in 1924, where he was the leader of the Communist representatives. At a PCI national congress in January 1926, a party majority was won to Gramsci’s positions, advanced with the support of Palmiro Togliatti. Later in the year, however, he was arrested as the fascists consolidated their dictatorship.

Mussolini had once referred to him as “this Sardinian hunchback and professor of economics and philosophy” who had “an unquestionably powerful brain.” The prosecutor at Gramsci’s trial – where he was convicted on six different charges of treason – warned the court of the dangers this posed in calling for a sentence of two decades: “We must stop this brain from functioning for twenty years.”[12] Gramsci doubly cheated the authorities – dying in eleven years, and doing intensive brain-work during his incarceration that has kept his thoughts “functioning” down to our own time.

During his ten years in prison, where his health was finally broken, Gramsci was able to fill thirty-four thick notebooks with a remarkable range of political, socialism, historical, and cultural writings. The presence of fascist censors forced him to use code words and obscure formulations. The rising influence of Stalinism within the international Communist movement – and his resistance to aspects of Stalinist ideology combined with a desire not to be isolated from that movement – also contributed to obscure and contradictory formulations. This is especially so due to a number of indications that his theoretical and political orientation was fundamentally incompatible with that which Stalin imposed. There seems to be a consensus among those who knew him and later scholars that had he openly espoused some of the positions he held shortly before imprisonment and while in prison, we would have been expelled from the Communist movement – his Communist brother Gennaro and his comrade Togliatti shielded him, refusing to transmit certain communications to higher authorities.[13] Carl Marzani, the first person to introduce Gramsci’s thought to an English-speaking readership, has given a vivid sense of the drama of Gramsci’s final years:
Consider this man, for ten years in Mussolini’s jails. Even in the most humane prisons, the physical and psychological pressures in imprisonment are a terrible ordeal; what must it have been like to be in a fascist jail? Add the burden of pain and fatigue as tuberculosis ravages the organism; insomnia. Hemorrhages, faintings, deliriums. In August, 1931, the most serious symptoms appear and by March, 1933, the first complete physical breakdown. He recovers somewhat and continues writings until 1935, when he can no longer work as the disease burns the last remaining reserves of the body.
Watch him at work, day after day, fighting with the penal administration and with the government up to Mussolini himself for the right to get a few books, a few magazines. Denied any Marxist writings, he has to quote from memory, paraphrase, use in his study of Croce [a liberal political philosopher and critic of Marx] only what Croce gives of Marx, in other words make his argument on Croce’s own grounds. He has to think of the censorship, avoid the well-known words and names, so he develops a code: Marxism is called the philosophy of praxis (from the Greek, to do; practice); Marx becomes the founder of the philosophy of praxis and Engels the second founder; Lenin is the greatest modern theorist of praxis; Capital becomes the critique of political economy, and so on.
Yet he continues writing; an assiduous, incredible labor. How the greatness of humanity is reaffirmed by the tenacity of his will, particularly in the last few years as he writes with wasted body, death a hovering companion. The enormous effort is reflected in the physical act of writing. The first notebooks were neat, in a clear and regular calligraphy. At the end, the handwriting wavers, wanders, is erratic and weak. But the thinking remains lucid, vigorous, trenchant, while the style continues poised and professional, spiced with humor, irony, and a genial twist of phrase.[14]

Gramsci’s intellectual achievement would have powerful impact years after his death. Among the most important works embedded in the prison notebooks is the extensive essay “The Modern Prince,” composed between 1929 and 1934.

It is impossible to understand this text unless one is clear that Gramsci’s primary goal is to help develop a Leninist-type organization capable of mobilizing the working class and its allies in an effective struggle for political power. Such an understanding has been contested by certain influential Gramsci scholars, such as Carl Boggs and Anne Showstack Sassoon, each of whom has offered valuable discussions of Gramsci’s thought. Sassoon asserts that “Gramsci’s analysis of a mediated relationship between masses and state, between people and intellectuals is . . . very different from Lenin’s,” since the Russian leader envisioned “the substitution of one set of elite intellectuals for another.”[15] Boggs elaborates:
The concrete meaning of politics in Gramsci’s Marxism . . . was its role in enlisting mass energies in the struggle for ideological hegemony and in establishing a new socialist “national-popular” community out of the cleavages and crises of the old society. . . . Lenin’s type of Jacobinism . . . was elitistand authoritarian to the extent that it envisaged the revolutionary transition as a project defined and led by a tightly-organized nucleus of professional cadres. What Gramsci outlined was neither an anarchistic spontaneous mass movement nor an eliteparty that would be the exclusive repository of consciousness, but a synthesis of the two – an organic linkage between elite and mass, the organized and spontaneous, the planned element and the vital impulse. . . . Gramsci’s Jacobinism, thus contained a “popular” or consensual component that was not normally associated with the primacy of politics.[16]

As Alastair Davidson has demonstrated, however, this difference between Gramsci and Lenin is definitely not something that Gramsci himself believed he was articulating. Considered by many of his closest comrades as “an expert on Lenin,” Gramsci believed that the Bolshevik party “acquired its definite character” in 1907-1909, that “the fundamental emphasis of Leninism was on the links with the working class,” and that (in Gramsci’s view) Lenin in fact “regarded the links between the party and the mass was what were at stake in discussing the ‘leading role’ of the party.”[17]

Peter Thomas has gone further to demonstrate that what Gramsci believed was neither an illusion nor a “politically correct” fiction. Polemicizing against the “mechanical and caricatured interpretation” of Russian revolutionary experience, Lenin insisted (in debates within the Communist International) that “in Europe, where almost all the proletarians are organized, we must win the majority of the working class and anyone who fails to understand this is lost to the Communist movement.” Thomas concludes: “Lenin’s advice on the need to win over the majority of the working class (understood in the broadest sense) as the sine qua non of revolutionary politics, whether in East or West, before or after a successful assault on bourgeois state power, became Gramsci’s fundamental orientation.”[18]

A considerable amount of recent scholarship corroborates the understanding of Lenin’s thought referred to in the analyses by Davidson and Thomas. More than this, a comparative analysis of the extensive document on party organization which Lenin helped to produce for the 1921 Third World Congress of the Communist International with Gramsci’s own elaboration in “The Modern Prince” reveals innumerable common themes and formulations.[19] Gramsci’s seminal work is nothing if not Leninist.

Machiavelli and Gramsci

Steeped in Italian history and cultural traditions, he turned to the classic text The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) – foremost political theorist of the Italian Renaissance – for the purpose of theorizing the question of political power in modern times. Like Machiavelli, Gramsci sought to examine the question in a manner that superficially seems chillingly a-moral. It is a science that can serve heroes and villains, democrats and reactionaries, those bent on self-defense and those bent on murder – the emancipatory goals of Marx and Lenin, but also the despotic designs of Mussolini and Stalin.[20]

Like Machiavelli, Gramsci sees the key to politics as the question of leadership: “The first element is that there really do exist rulers and ruled, leaders and led. The entire science and art of politics are based on this primordial and (given certain general conditions) irreducible fact.” A difference between Machiavelli and Gramsci lies in the phrase “given certain conditions.” These are the conditions of modern class society, which have not always existed (first crystallizing roughly 5000 years ago) and which – as a Marxist – Gramsci believed can and must be overcome. As he puts it: “In the formation of leaders, one premise is fundamental: is it the intention that there should always be rulers and ruled, or is it the objective to create the conditions in which this division is no longer necessary?”[21]

Another difference between Machiavelli and Gramsci is that the theorist of the Middle Ages believed that leadership would be provided by individual heroes and villains – princes – whereas Gramsci believed that the modern prince must be collective and can only be a political party, which is the focus of his text. As he notes, “the formation of the party system” involves “an historical phase linked to the standardization of broad masses of the population (communications, newspapers, big cities, etc.) …”[22]

Fertile ambiguities

In Gramsci’s discussion, there are a variety of ambiguities, deriving from several problems. One is his desire to elude the watchful eyes of various censors – certainly those of his fascist jailers, but also, potentially some of his own comrades who are coming under the powerful influence of Stalinism. Intertwined with this is the fact that he is dealing, more or less, with all political parties of modern times, and sometimes it seems unclear whether he is talking about a fascist party, a more or less democratic-republican bourgeois or petty-bourgeois party, a reformist social-democratic party, or a communist party (and of the latter, one that is healthy or one that is infected with bureaucratic or sectarian tendencies).

Other ambiguities are perhaps more profound. In particular, at one point he states that “every party is the expression of a social group, and one social group only.” But only a few pages later he tells us that “the great industrialists utilize all the existing parties turn by turn, but they do not have their own party,” observing that in England the industrialists shifted from the Liberal to the Conservative party, even reaching a significant accommodation with the Labour Party. He adds that some parties (it is tempting here to think of our own Democratic and Republican parties in the United States) represent “a nexus of classes, great and small, rather than a single, great class.” But he then enunciates “the theoretical truth that every class has a single party.”[23] Without trying to unravel here what seems like a contradictory knot, it can be suggested that such a critical “working-out” process might provide a fruitful way of developing rich insights into complex political realities.

An additional ambiguity can be found in Gramsci’s assertion that “the counting of ‘votes’ is the final ceremony of a long process, in which it is precisely those who devote their best energies to the State and the nation (when such they are) who carry the greatest weight” – but then he tells us that “the historical rationality of numerical consensus is systematically falsified by the influence of wealth.”[24]

Revolutionary goals shape revolutionary organization

Actually, from this point, Gramsci moves immediately to a veiled discussion of an expansive, revolutionary democracy – based on governance by democratic working-class councils (or soviets) in which, as he puts it, political life moves beyond “the canons of formal democracy,” and “the people’s consent does not end at the moment of voting,” but rather also involves active participation in implementing the decisions, giving new life and deeper meaning (or proletarian content) to the idea of self-government.

This relates to Gramsci’s remarks regarding “that determinate party which has the aim of founding a new type of State (and which was rationally and historically created for that end).” From his 1921 mini-essay “Real Dialectics” we can understand that Gramsci unambiguously views the Italian Communist Party in this light, emerging from lessons learned from momentous events, “the real dialectics of history,” by growing numbers of individuals who are part of “the worker and peasant masses.”[25]

While he makes reference in “The Modern Prince” to this party’s “inevitable progress to State power,” he was convinced that victory would also be dependent on the revolutionary party developing in a manner that linked it organically to the laboring masses. Elsewhere in “The Modern Prince” he is critical of so-called parties made up of what he dismissively refers to as “’volunteers,’ and in a certain sense declassés” that “have never or almost never represented homogeneous social blocs,” but are instead “the political equivalent of gypsy bands or nomads.”[26]

This seems a slap at the kinds of left-wing (often ultra-left) sects that have proliferated over the years. Their sectarianism prioritizes their own small-group needs and “purity” at the expense of possibilities for real struggles that could benefit and help politicize masses of people. This contrasts with Gramsci’s vision of what is needed in moving forward to drawing together massive “social blocs” actually capable of bringing revolutionary change.

Gramsci, after all, had not been a product of “far-left” small-group politics, which became prevalent in many countries on the Left in the late twentieth century. The Italian Socialist Party had a membership that rose from 81,000 to 216,000 in 1920, with a vote in parliamentary elections that rose from 347,000 in 1913 to 1,756,000 in 1919 – its seats in parliament rose from 47 to 156, making it the strongest single party in parliament. It controlled half of the local governments in the country, involving 2,162 villages, towns of various sizes, and such cities as Milan, Bologna, and Turin. Trade unions linked to the party rose from 320,000 in 1914 to 1,159,00 in 1919 and 2,320,000 in 1920. The cooperative movement intimately connected to the party had nearly three million members in 1921.

This was the moment when working-class socialist forces split and the Italian Communist Party crystallized, with a membership of about 40,000 and a militant youth movement of 28,000. The Communists had support of about one-third of trade unionists in Italy’s major labor federation. After the split, they were able to elect 13 representatives to parliament (in contrast to 128 from the Socialist Party). This was seen as only the beginning, and Gramsci envisioned it becoming a force not only of the radicalized industrial workers in urban Italy but also winning “the support and consent of other layers, of the poor peasants and the intellectual proletariat.” Suggesting that the old Socialist Party had “drawn a crowd” with “the methods of fairground demagogy,” he concluded: “The more the Italian population has plunged into chaos and disorientation, and the more the forces dissolving the past alignment of revolutionary forces have operated and continue to operate, the evidently necessary it appears to bring about a new alignment of loyal and trusty soldiers of the world revolution and of communism.”[27]

To achieve this, Gramsci advanced a particular way of developing and utilizing Marxism. In his discussion of Gramsci’s open Marxism, Carl Marzani commented: “The deeper one’s Marxism, the less one’s dogmatism. ” Frank Rosengarten – exploring Gramsci’s prison writings – makes a similar point. “As in the past, he insisted on the discipline, the rigor and the united will of the Party,” yet from his prison cell a deepened way of explaining this comes to the fore, a notion in stark contrast with the Marxist “orthodoxy” permeating the Communist International in the late 1920s and early 1930s: “it was necessary to adapt theory to events and not events to theory.” Or as Gramsci himself put it: “Reality is teeming with the most bizarre coincidences, and it is the theoretician’s task to find in this bizarreness new evidence for his theory, to ‘translate’ the elements of historical life into theoretical language, but not vice versa, making reality conform to an abstract scheme.”[28]

Flowing from this, Gramsci followed his theoretical mentors in seeking to translate Marxist theory into the distinctive cultural specifics and language of his own homeland. “For [Antonio] Labriola, as for Lenin at around the same time and later for Gramsci,” Gramsci scholar Valentino Gerratana tells us, “Marxism becomes a truly living force in the consciousness of a country and can produce in each country all of its effects only when the general principles of the doctrine assume a particular national form, tied to a tradition and open to an independent development.”[29]

Qualities of the revolutionary party

To understand the nature of a genuinely revolutionary party, Gramsci speculates on how the history of such an organization might be written. “A simple narrative of the internal life of a political organization” – focusing on the first groups that bring it into being, “the ideological controversies through which its program and conception of the world” are formed – will provide only an account of “certain intellectual groups” or even “the political biography of a single personality,” but will not provide an adequate understanding of the political party. To develop such an understanding, much more is required:
The history will have to be written of a particular mass of men who have followed the founders of the party, sustained them with their trust, loyalty and discipline, or criticized then “realistically” by dispersing or remaining passive before certain initiatives. But will this mass be made up solely of members of the party? Will it be sufficient to follow the congresses, the votes, etc., that is to say the whole nexus of activities and modes of existence through which the mass following of the party manifests its will? Clearly it will be necessary to take some account of the social group of which the party in question is the expression and the most advanced element. The history of a party, in other words, can only be the history of a particular social group. But this group is not isolated; it has friends, kindred groups, opponents, enemies. The history of any given party can only emerge from the complex portrayal of the totality of society and State (often with international ramifications too). Hence it may be said that to write the history of a party means nothing less than to write the general history of a country from a monographic viewpoint, in order to highlight a particular aspect of it. A party will have had greater or less significance and weight precisely to the extent to which its particular activity has been more or less decisive in determining a country’s history.[30]

The richness of Gramsci’s discussion is deepened as he takes up a variety of questions. This includes an examination of different layers within the party: the “mass element” of “ordinary, average” members, who are essential to the organization’s existence but who by themselves cannot ensure the party’s existence; the experienced, knowledgeable and “innovative” layer constituting the party’s leadership, whose qualities make it the essential ingredient to the party’s existence; and “an intermediate element” of party militants who provide the crucial physical, intellectual and moral interconnections between the other two layers. The cohesion (or “centralism”) of the party is dependent on a so-called “policing” function that can either be educational, progressive, and democratic or repressive, reactionary, and bureaucratic. “The problem of assimilating the entire grouping to its most advanced fraction” is an educational problem that is threatened by the “danger of becoming bureaucratized.”[31]

Related to this is Gramsci’s discussion of spontaneity. Gramsci insists that “pure” spontaneity does not exist in history, “that every ‘spontaneous’ movement contains rudimentary elements of conscious leadership, of discipline.” At the same time, it is not possible for “modern theory [Marxism] to be in opposition to the ‘spontaneous’ feelings of the masses.” Nonetheless, he sees “spontaneity” as an ideologically contested terrain, with the possibility of either “progressive” or “regressive” outcomes, and often involving “bizarre combinations.” The revolutionary theoretician (and revolutionary party) must “unravel these in order to discover fresh proof of [revolutionary] theory, to ‘translate’ into theoretical language the elements of historical life.” But he warned that “it is not reality which should be expected to conform to the abstract schema,” and that it is a mistake to see “as real and worthwhile only such movements of revolt as are one hundred per cent conscious, i.e. movements that are governed by plans worked out in advance to the last detail or in line with abstract theory.”[32]

The appropriate interplay of spontaneous upsurges with conscious revolutionary organization, in Gramsci’s opinion, “can only be found in democratic centralism, which is, so to speak, a ‘centralism’ in movement – i.e. a continual adaptation of the organization of the real movement, a matching of thrusts from below with orders from above, a continuous insertion of elements thrown up from the depths of the rank and file into the solid framework of the leadership apparatus which ensures continuity and the regular accumulation of experience.”[33]

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will

A phrase commonly associated with Gramsci appeared on L’Ordine Nuovo under his editorship: “Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will.” It was a maxim taken from Romain Rolland (1866-1944), the French musicologist, pacifist, and Nobel Prize winning novelist who was a favorite of Gramsci’s.[34]

Rolland’s watchword, Gramsci argued in a 1920 polemic with the anarchists, characterized two essential aspects of “the socialist conception of the revolutionary process.” Observing that some anarchists wanted to repudiate Marx’s pessimistic notion that revolution “comes about as a result of an excess of poverty and oppression,” he affirmed that “socialist pessimism has found terrible confirmation in recent events: the proletariat has been plunged into the deepest abyss of poverty and oppression that the mind of man could ever conceive.” In the face of this reality, anarchist spokesmen “have nothing to counterpose but vacuous and irrelevant pseudo-revolutionary demagogy, interwoven with the most tired themes of street-level, simple-minded optimism.” It was, instead, the revolutionary pessimist who truly expressed an optimism of the will:
The socialists . . . counterpose an energetic organizing campaign using the best and most conscious elements of the working class. In every way open to them, the socialists are striving via these vanguard elements to prepare the broadest sectors of the masses to win freedom and the power that can guarantee this freedom.

He went on to insist on the necessity for what he would later label the modern prince – working “systematically to organize a great army of disciplined and conscious elements, ready for any sacrifice, trained to carry out slogans as one person, ready to assume effective responsibility for the revolution and become its agents,” thereby making possible the mobilization of “the creative capacity” of “the masses who are reduced to such conditions of bodily and spiritual slavery.”[35] Some years later (December 1929), from a fascist prison, he assured his youngest brother Carlo,
you must realize that I am far from being discouraged or feeling beaten. . . . It seems to me that . . . a man ought to be so deeply convinced that the source of his own moral forces is in himself – his own energy and will, the iron coherence of ends and means – that he never despairs and never falls into those vulgar, banal moods, pessimism and optimism. My own state of mind synthesizes these two feelings and transcends them: my mind is pessimistic, but my will is optimistic. Whatever the situation, I imagine the worst that could happen in order to summon up all my reserves and willpower to overcome each and every obstacle.[36]

It is interesting to see the way in which Gramsci’s example inspired the European cultural icon whose early work had inspired him, as in 1934 Romain Rolland sought to summarize for an international readership the meaning of Gramsci’s life, ideas, and impending death:
An iron spirit in a weak body. Ill from childhood – a fever of study and reflection. No bitterness. The joy of learning and sharing his knowledge. A passion for culture which he wished so ardently to communicate, which he later made an absolute duty for the proletariat. …
This philosophical mind, fed on Hegelianism, and specializing at the University in linguistic studies, was powerful above all in dialectic. … He founded in May 1919, the Ordine Nuovo, with the collaboration of the executive of the Italian Communist Party. …
He turned himself into the schoolmaster of the proletarian revolution; but his lessons were inscribed in action, in bold characters. It was around him that there sprang up in Turin in 1919-20 the movement of factory councils, which he intended to turn into unit of the revolutionary army during the struggle and the units of the Workers’ State after victory. This victory he was not to see … But a new example has been set which will be taken up, an example which links up with the great and victories experiment of Bolshevik Russia at the other end of Europe. … Nor did Gramsci, who made no separation between philosophy and politics, escape the animosity and bitterness of the Duce [Mussolini]; but he was at any rate struck down fighting. … They did him the honor of sentencing him, as the leader, to twenty years of imprisonment.
That means death for a man suffering from Pott’s disease, tuberculous lesions, arteriosclerosis, with arterial hypertension … in his prison-tomb of Turi do Bari, where all possibility of serious attention is lacking . … So, he will die. And Italian Communism, too, will have its great martyr, whose shadow and whose heroic flame will guide it in its future struggles.[37]

In his mind and notebooks, Gramsci systematically labored to develop conceptualizations of the modern prince, the disciplined and conscious collective, the revolutionary party, that he saw as essential to unleashing and mobilizing the immense creative energy of the oppressed. Those who continue the struggle for human liberation may find nourishment and strength from this gift.


[1] On Lukács, see Paul Le Blanc, “Spider and Fly: The Leninist Philosophy of Georg Lukács,” Historical Materialism, Vol. 21, No. 2 (2013), 47-75. Discussions of Lenin’s approach consistent with the point being made here can be found in Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin, An Intellectual Biography(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014), Alan Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony: Political Practice and Theory in the Class Struggle (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), and Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015). Also relevant are two works by Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: “What Is to Be Done?” in Context(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008) and Lenin (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), plus August H. Nimtz’s two-volume study The Ballot, The Streets – or Both, consisting of Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905 and Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). A more general work arguing that – despite meaningful differences – Gramsci shares a basic revolutionary theoretical and strategic framework with Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky can be found in Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci, A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics, Second Edition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016).

[2] Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism(London: Verso, 1979), 31.

[3] Carl Marzani put it well: “Gramsci is the analyst of the superstructure, par excellence. In area after area – sociology, politics, mass psychology, literature, etc. – he deepened Marxism, sometimes going further than Lenin, for in many areas Lenin acted as a Marxist but did not write and develop the lessons of his experiences.” Carl Marzani, The Open Marxism of Antonio Gramsci(New York: Cameron Associates, 1957), 7. The same can be said of the 1920s contributions of Lukács.

[4] Frank Rosengarten makes the same point in his excellent collection of essays, The Revolutionary Marxism of Antonio Gramsci (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015),15-16.

[5] Dante Germino, Antonio Gramsci, Architect of a New Politics(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 1; Giuseppe Fiori, Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary(New York: Schocken Books, 1973), 19.

[6] John M. Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1967), 11-12; Fiori, 22; Germino, xv.

[7] Lynne Lawner, “Introduction,” Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison(New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 11; Antonio Gramsci, A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926, ed. by Derek Boothman (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 131, 132, 247.

[8] Alastair Davidson, Antonio Gramsci: Towards an Intellectual Biography(London: Merlin Press, 1977), 32, 34, 38; Fiori, 53; Germino, 5.

[9] Germino 11.

[10] An outstanding work on this period remains Gwyn A. Williams, Proletarian Order: Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils and the Origins of Communism in Italy 1911-1921(London: Pluto Press, 1975).

[11] Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary(New York: New York Review of Books, 2012), 218-219.

[12] Cammett, 138, 182.

[13] Peter D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), 230-232; Fiori, 212-216, 249-258; Davidson, 240; Rosengarten, 22, 116-117; Germino, 146, 184, 257. Also see Emanuele Saccarelli, Gramsci and Trotsky in the Shadow of Stalinism: The Political Theory and Practice of Opposition(New York: Routledge, 2008).

[14] Marzani, 13-14.

[15] Anne Showstack Sassoon, Gramsci’s Politics(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 258, 276.

[16] Carl Boggs, Gramsci’s Marxism(London: Pluto Press, 1976), 108-109. It is interesting that Carl Marzani, in later years, was inclined to make a similar distinction, as he explained his decision to ease out of Communist Party membership in the 1940s. Contrasting New York state chairman Israel Amter’s rigidity, characteristic of higher circles in the U.S. Communist Party, with his own more open and free-wheeling approach as a lower-level organizer on New York’s Lower East Side, Marzani later reflected: “He was a stickler for Party discipline, and, in his eyes, I was defying it. Neither of us knew it [then], but he was a Leninist and I was a Gramscian.” See Carl Marzani, The Education of a Reluctant Radical: Book 4, From Pentagon to Penitentiary(New York: Topical Books, 1995), 50-51, 55. Yet Amter’s organizational approach represented a Stalinist mode of functioning that both Amter and Marzani interpreted, in the 1940s, as “Leninism.” It would have been impossible for Amter to hold his high position in the Communist Party if he had thought or functioned otherwise. Similarly – but in stark contrast – it would have been impossible for Gramsci to be General Secretary of the Italian Communist Party in the 1920s if he had not been the kind of genuine Leninist that he was. Obviously, Leninism of that time tended to be far more open, critical-minded, creative (more “Gramscian”) than would be permissible after Stalin’s ascendancy.

[17] Davidson, 91, 236, 237.

[18] Thomas, 208, 212. This is consistent with sources cited in footnote 1 above.

[19] “Theses on the Organizational Structure of the Communist Parties and the Methods and Content of Their Work,” in John Riddell, ed., To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 978-1006; Paul Le Blanc, Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 85; Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 285-286.

[20] Antonio Gramsci, “The Modern Prince,” Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 135. See also Quentin Skinner, Machiavelli, A Very Short Introduction(Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[21] Ibid., 144

[22] Ibid., 195.

[23] Ibid., 148, 156.

[24] Ibid., 193.

[25] Ibid., 197; “Real Dialectics,” in Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, ed. by Quintin Hoare (New York: International Publishers, 1978), 15-16.

[26] Gramsci, “The Modern Prince,” 203-204.

[27] Julius Braunthal, History of the International, 1914-1943(New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967), 199, 208; Williams, 299; “Communists and the Elections,” in Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, 34.

[28] Marzani, The Open Marxism of Antonio Gramsci, 6; Rosengarten, 121.

[29] Quoted in Rosengarten, 43.

[30] Gramsci, “The Modern Prince,” 150-151.

[31] Ibid., 152-153.

[32] Ibid., 196, 198, 200.

[33] Ibid., 188-189.

[34] David James Fisher, Romain Rolland and the Politics of Intellectual Engagement(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 87-88; Davidson, 70, 80, 99, 101-102, 247. Rolland’s multi-volume masterwork, Jean-Christophe(New York: Modern Library, 1938), published from 1904 to 1912, about a fictional musical genius who does not compromise with oppressive forces of the status quo, as well as his opposition to the First World War – documented in Above the Battle(London: George Allan & Unwin, 1916) – powerfully impacted on other figures in the Marxist movement, including Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Karl Radek, Nikolai Bukharin, Victor Serge. In later years Rolland would tragically compromise his moral authority through acceptance of Stalin’s 1936-38 purges.

[35] “Address to the Anarchists,” in Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920, ed. by Quintin Hoare (New York: International Publishers, 1977), 188-189.

[36] Gramsci, Letters from Prison, 158-159.

[37] Romain Rolland, “For Those Dying in Mussolini’s Jails. Antonio Gramsci” (1934), I Will Not Rest(New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1937), 310-313.
Gramsci Marxist theory Paul Le Blanc

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Karl Kautsky: From Pope to Renegade-Doug Enaa Greene

Posted by admin On October - 25 - 2018 Comments Off on Karl Kautsky: From Pope to Renegade-Doug Enaa Greene



Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, 1910
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Left Voice with author’s permission — At the height of the Second International, Karl Kautsky was recognized by socialists and anti-socialists alike as “The Pope of Marxism” for his popularization and systematization of Marxist ideas. The great figures of the day looked to him for guidance, whether Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, V. I. Lenin, or Eugene Debs. Since Kautsky was such an authoritative voice on Marxism, his subsequent betrayal was so deep that later communists could be forgiven for mistaking his first name as “Renegade” (as Lenin bitterly called him). Although Kautsky fell into obscurity following the Russian Revolution, in the last few years there has been a revival of interest in his politics in both academia (notably by the scholar Lars Lih) and on the political left. This raises questions about the meaning of Kautsky’s orthodox Marxism and about what, if anything, a renewed revolutionary left should adopt from it as our own?

Kautsky’s Orthodoxy
Karl Kautsky was originally born in Prague in 1854 and joined the socialist movement while a student there in the mid-1870s. However, it was only after moving to Germany and joining the Social Democratic Party (SPD) that he began his rise to prominence. In 1883, Kautsky was made editor of Die Neue Zeit, the SPD’s main theoretical journal, for which he wrote on many theoretical, historical, and political topics. By 1891, Kautsky’s reputation had grown so much among socialists that he was chosen to co-write the SPD’s Erfurt Programme and a popular commentary on it known as The Class Struggle.

The Erfurt Programme and subsequent works by Kautsky systematized the SPD’s understanding of Marxist orthodoxy. According to Kautsky, the contradictions of capitalism would eventually cause the system to break down. Capitalism brought with it the accumulation, centralization, and concentration of capital, the growth of the working class, and sharper divisions between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Ultimately, the relations of production would cease to foster the development of the productive forces, and this would signal the onset of the socialist revolution.

For Kautsky, it was the mission of social democracy to educate the workers that their salvation could not be found in capitalism, but only in socialism. To accomplish this task, social democracy had to be the leadership not only of the workers, “but of all laboring and exploited classes, or, in other words, of the great majority of the population. We have already seen that the industrial proletariat tends to become the only working-class.”[1] It was the great mission of social democracy to merge Marxist theory with the working class movement in order to lead it to final victory: “Socialism as a doctrine certainly has its roots in modern economic relationships just like the class struggle of the proletariat, and just like the latter, it emerges out of the struggle against the poverty and misery of the masses that capitalism creates. But they arise simultaneously, not one out of the other, and on different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge.” [2] Without the merger of the working class movement and revolutionary social democracy, Kautsky thought, the proletariat would merely struggle for day-to-day reforms, and socialism would remain a futile discussion among intellectuals.

It was Kautsky’s Marxist orthodoxy with its belief that socialism was inevitable that shaped a generation of socialists from the United States to the Russian Empire.

The Revisionist Heresy
Kautsky’s Marxism did not go unchallenged within the SPD. In 1896-1898, Eduard Bernstein wrote a series of articles that argued the time had come to revise Marxist theory, which amounted to renouncing socialist revolution as a goal and a call for the SPD to focus all their efforts on seeking social reform, and abandon the prospects of a social revolution.

Bernstein’s revisionist challenge threatened the entire edifice of Kautsky’s orthodoxy and the SPD’s raison d’être. Kautsky’s response restated his basic positions on class polarization, the difference between reforms and revolution, and the need for the conquest of power. This largely satisfied the SPD party leadership, who twice voted against Bernstein’s revisionism in 1899 and 1901.

However, strains were beginning to show at the seams of Kautsky’s Marxism. His orthodoxy could explain the past and predict a glorious socialist future, but it was of little use in present struggles. Kautsky tended toward fatalism and passivity in the here and now. He simply advocated that the SPD slowly accumulate its forces through a “strategy of attrition” by strengthening its apparatus and winning votes until they achieved a parliamentary majority. In practice, this was little different than what the revisionists argued. Despite what Kautsky may have believed, socialism as a goal receded into the horizon. At one point, he even stated: “[the SPD is] a revolutionary party, but it is not a party that makes revolutions.”[3]

The practical triumph of revisionism in the SPD was something that Kautsky was unwilling to confront since he perceived it largely as a theoretical issue and not an organizational one. For Kautsky and other orthodox Marxists, the unity of the SPD was something that needed to be maintained at all costs. The SPD’s powerful apparatus, millions of votes, and the support of the trade unions was a sign of the coming socialist future. In fact, he believed that the unity of the SPD was identical to the unity of the working class. It did not even matter to Kautsky that all members of the party did not share a common Marxist worldview: “One can be a good comrade without believing in the materialist conception of history, but one is in no sense a good comrade if one does not submit to the congresses of the party.”[4] All theoretical differences could be solved within the party, no matter how serious they were.

However, this dream of party unity and Kautsky’s historical schema would not survive a practical challenge of war and revolution.

The Bolshevik Challenge
In 1905, revolution erupted in Russia, and Kautsky offered strategic advice on the way forward. Kautsky angered the more moderate Mensheviks (who shared his orthodoxy) by advocating that the workers lead the revolution as opposed to subordinating themselves to the bourgeoisie. Kautsky declared: “The age of bourgeois revolutions, i.e. of revolutions in which the bourgeoisie was the driving force, is over in Russia… As soon as the proletariat appears as an independent class with independent revolutionary aims, the bourgeoisie ceases to be a revolutionary class…”[5] It is no wonder that both Lenin and Trotsky saw Kautsky’s positions as endorsements of their own.

That Kautsky could be claimed by Trotsky and Lenin showcased the ambiguity of his own position. For one, Kautsky did not advocate permanent revolution as Trotsky did (the democratic revolution growing over to a socialist one). As Kautsky said, “It therefore seems unthinkable that the present revolution in Russia is already leading to the introduction of a socialist mode of production, even if it should bring social democracy to power temporarily.”[6] While Lenin and Trotsky believed that Czarism would not be toppled without an armed struggle (leading them to hail the December insurrection in Moscow), Kautsky argued instead: “the revolution must take place through methods of peace, not of war.”[7]

Still, Kautsky had placed himself on the left in those debates and hoped that the Russian Revolution would revitalize the SPD. The party bureaucracy remained immobile and continued on its conservative course. Kautsky buried whatever misgivings he had and accepted this state of affairs. After all, the SPD was playing the role that Kautsky had assigned to it. Once again as a champion of party unity, he refused to advocate any other course. To that end, when Rosa Luxemburg argued for the SPD to employ mass strikes to win meaningful reforms, Kautsky condemned her “rebel’s impatience” of trying to reach socialism by forcing the march of history and ignoring objective limitations..[8] Rather, Kautsky felt confident in waiting for socialism since he believed that history was on the party’s side.

The Test of War
Kautsky’s entire system was shattered with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The SPD ignored its solemn internationalist and anti-war commitments in order to support the Kaiser’s war effort. As he said in retrospect: “It is amazing that none of us who were there had the idea of raising the question: What to do if war breaks out? What attitude should the Socialist parties take in this war?”[9] Kautsky could offer no revolutionary path for the SPD to follow in the bloody maelstrom. Instead, Kautsky offered “left” rationalizations for the SPD’s pro-war position, which led them to publicly oppose strikes against the war and even collaborate to arrest revolutionary union leaders who organized them. Thus, Kautsky was politically impotent at a critical hour. By contrast, internationalists such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg called for revolutionary action against the war.

While Lenin had denounced Kautsky’s opportunism in the face of war, it was only following the Bolshevik Revolution that Kautsky became a “renegade.” In Terrorism and Communism, Kautsky condemned the Bolshevik Revolution on no uncertain terms for creating a minority Jacobin-style dictatorship that violated bourgeois democratic norms. Even though the Soviet Republic was fighting for its life against counter-revolutionaries, both Lenin and Trotsky took the time to respond to the slanders of their former mentor. Lenin denounced Kautsky for emptying Marxism of its revolutionary content and transforming it into something acceptable for liberals.

Trotsky said that by “abandoning the idea of a revolutionary dictatorship, Kautsky transforms the question of the conquest of power by the proletariat into a question of the conquest of a majority of votes by the Social Democratic Party in one of the electoral campaigns of the future…. This fetishism of the parliamentary majority represents a brutal repudiation, not only of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but of Marxism and of the revolution altogether.”[10] The Marxist Pope had at last become the Renegade who betrayed everything he claimed to believe in.

The Verdict
While Kautsky proclaimed his Marxist orthodoxy until his death in 1938, he remained a marginal figure in political life, ignored by both social democrats and communists. His orthodoxy had at last ripped apart at the seams. Kautsky could offer no viable response to the rise of fascism, beyond viewing it as an aberration from the inevitable march of history. This would be cold comfort to the SPD members languishing in Nazi jails. His last years were spent writing theoretically impoverished works on Marxism and vitriolic anti-communist tracts.

In his obituary for Karl Kautsky, Trotsky generously noted: “We remember Kautsky as our former teacher to whom we once owed a good deal, but who separated himself from the proletarian revolution and from whom, consequently, we had to separate ourselves.”[11] The younger Kautsky made invaluable and necessary contributions by spreading Marxist ideas, but ultimately his theoretical and organizational weaknesses proved to be his undoing. At decisive moments, when the situation called upon Kautsky to act, he failed the test. In the final instance, Kautsky’s Marxism could offer no practical revolutionary path forward to great convulsions, just assurances in the steady march of progress. Kautsky’s final legacy was in providing a “left” cover for imperialist war and an anti-communist “socialism” made safe for bourgeois liberalism.


[1] Karl Kautsky, The Class Struggle (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1910), 210.

[2] Quoted in Alan Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony (Boston: Brill, 2014), 342.

[3] Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power (Alameda: Center for Socialist History, 2007), 41.

[4] Quoted in Massimo Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880-1938 (New York: Verso Books, 1979), 127.

[5] Quoted in Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, ed., Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record (Boston: Brill, 2009), 605.

[6] Ibid. 607.

[7] Ibid. 179.

[8] Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917: The Development of the Great Schism (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1983), 185.

[9] Quoted in Enzo Traverso, Fire And Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945 (New York: Verso, 2016), 38.

[10] Leon Trotsky, “Terrorism and Communism,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1920/terrcomm/ch02.htm

[11] Leon Trotsky, “Karl Kautsky,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/11/kautsky.htm
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We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

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