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Archive for December, 2018

Bhagat Singh: a rebel in prison-CHAMAN LAL

Posted by admin On December - 26 - 2018 Comments Off on Bhagat Singh: a rebel in prison-CHAMAN LAL


Five more letters of Bhagat Singh found with his younger brother Ranvir Singh’s family reveal the teenager’s fearless and forthright approach in dealing with the British officialdom.
THE earliest record of Bhagat Singh’s writings dates back to 1918 when he was 11 years old, and they were postcards he had written in Urdu and Punjabi to his grandfather and an aunt, Hukam Kaur. Collections of Bhagat Singh’s writings began to appear only in the 1970s, and the latest collections in Urdu and Marathi comprise 125 writings of Bhagat Singh, including 53 letters. With the addition of five more letters discovered in 2017-18 to the collections, Bhagat Singh’s writings number 130, apart from his Jail Notebook.

In this process of searching for Bhagat Singh’s writings, this writer located five letters of his in his trial proceedings edited by M.J.S. Waraich, which were then published in The Tribune in 2007. Following this, he found 10 more letters from the exhibition titled “The Trial of Bhagat Singh” held in 2008 in the newly built Supreme Court museum complex. The Supreme Court gave him a digital copy of the exhibition and the permission to use the contents with acknowledgements. The 10 letters were published in The Hindu of August 15, 2011, along with the rare photograph of Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt, first published on April 12, 1929, in Bande Matram from Lahore.

In 2013, this writer found a letter of Bhagat Singh that even Bhagat Singh believed was lost. However, it was a Hindi translation from the English original. This letter was retranslated into English, and both versions were published in The Hindu (Sunday Magazine) of March 23, 2014. In fact, before going to the gallows, Bhagat Singh took care to leave his writings in safe hands. Thus, he handed over his Jail Notebook to a younger brother, Kulbir Singh, along with a few other items.

Many of his writings were on loose sheets of paper, which he handed over to Kumari Lajjawati, who was secretary of the Bhagat Singh Defence Committee and reported directly to Jawaharlal Nehru on all steps taken to save the life of the three convicted revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru. Bhagat Singh wanted her to hand over these papers to his comrade Bejoy Kumar Sinha, who was serving life imprisonment in the Andamans in the Lahore Conspiracy case, on his release.

Kumari Lajjawati, who was a teacher in and later Principal of KMV College in Jalandhar, handed over the papers to Feroze Chand, editor of The People, an English weekly founded by Lala Lajpat Rai. The People published many of Bhagat Singh’s writings from these papers for the next two to three years.

The papers that Kumari Lajjawati handed over to Bejoy Kumar Sinha after his release from the Cellular Jail in 1938 were lost during the 1942 Quit India Movement. The person to whom Sinha handed over the writings to be kept in safe custody probably destroyed them himself out of fear of the colonial police.

Interestingly, in 2017-18, five letters of Bhagat Singh were found from the family papers of another younger brother of his, Ranvir Singh, whose son Sheonan Singh served in the Indian Army with distinction and retired as Major General a few years ago. Ranvir Singh had begun writing a biography of Bhagat Singh in Urdu, which he could not complete as he passed away.

Sheonan Singh could not read Urdu, so he gifted the papers to the Khatkar Kalan Bhagat Singh Memorial Museum set up by the Punjab government in the ancestral house of the Bhagat Singh family in its ancestral village of Khatkar Kalan near Jalandhar. Sheonan Singh sent the papers through an acquaintance sometime in 2017. In those Urdu papers, there were five letters in English, which were part of Bhagat Singh’s communication with British colonial officials regarding his surveillance. Interestingly, the most senior British officer of Punjab, the Chief Secretary, responded to a letter from 19-year-old Bhagat Singh in 1926.

This correspondence makes fascinating reading. When the existence of these letters was mentioned in the Punjab media, this writer requested Sheonan Singh for copies, which, incidentally, he himself did not keep even for the record, and the material was yet to reach Khatkar Kalan museum. However, Sheonan Singh did arrange to provide copies of these typed letters to me, and these have been reproduced here with due credit to Sheonan Singh.

The English material found among the Ranvir Singh-held papers included seven letters of communication between British officials and Bhagat Singh and one statement by ‘Azad’. Of the five letters from Bhagat Singh, three relate to his strong resentment at his mail being intercepted in 1926. Two letters relate to his arrest and subsequent release after five weeks in 1927. Bhagat Singh wrote all the letters on his father’s letterhead in typed form, and from this correspondence it seems that one letter of October 26 is missing, which had been responded to by The Postmaster, Lahore, on October 30. The first letter by Bhagat Singh from these discovered letters is dated November 1, 1926, and it is in response to the letter of October 30, 1926, from The Postmaster, Lahore.

The letter is as follows:


The Postmaster



I thank you for your favour dated 30th October 1926, No D2850. In reply to the same I may request that I tore off all the envelopes whenever I received them. Yet this one referred in my last letter, was preserved, and is being enclosed herewith. This was posted at Bombay on 13th October, two days before the other one, but was delivered on 23rd along with that one. The circumstances were quite normal. The letter box contained a few letters at first delivery. The letter box was emptied by myself. When at 12 or so at noon I again opened my letter box I found these two and another letter there. The circumstances were quite ordinary.

But I have been marking since one or two months that all the letters addressed to me were stamped and then stamped again [emphasis added throughout]. Cut exactly at the same place. This of course did arise suspecion in my mind. I had no desire to write at first but at the receipt of these two letters I was anxious to know the real cause. This envelope will help you upto some extent to prove the truth of allegation.

But may I request you to write a definite answer to my first letter—Are any letters opened or intercepted? If so why?

I am certain about one thing and that is this that they were not delivered to me by the first delivery but were detained for a day or two. This envelope will help you in this matter too.


The above letter was in response to The Postmaster’s letter of October 30, 1926, reproduced below:



The Postmaster

Lahore G.P.O.


S. Bhagat Singh

C/O The Himalya Ass: Coy Ltd:

Lahori Gate, Lahore.

No. D. 2850 dated at Lahore the 30.10.1926


I have the honour to acknowledge receipt of your letter of the 26th instant: addressed to the Postmaster General Punjab and N.W.F. Circle, Lahore and request that you will send per bearer the covers of the letter which are alleged to have been restamped and delivered to you late.

The enclosed envelope does not bear the 2nd delivery stamp. The postmarks show that it was posted Bombay on the 15th and received in this office by the 11 A.M. delivery on Sunday the 17th: Kindly let me know the circumstances under which you state that it was delivered to you on the 23rd.

I have etc..,


Postmaster Lahore

The second and third letters of Bhagat Singh of November 17 and 26, 1926, are addressed to Secretary, Punjab Government, with reference to the interception of his post. Bhagat Singh addressed the Punjab government, Lahore, through its bureaucracy. In the first letter he refers to the Postmaster’s letter of November 16 (which was not among the matter found) telling him that his post was being intercepted as per the order of the Punjab government.

The November 17 letter, typewritten, of Bhagat Singh is as follows:

C/O The Himalaya Ass: Co: Ltd:


Lahore, 17th Nov: 26


The Secretary,

The Punjab Government,



I enclose herewith a copy of letter of Postmaster Lahore G.P.O dated 16th instant addressed to me. In reply to my letter dated 1st instant addressed to him, he wrote to me that my letter were detained by that department under the orders of the Punjab Government.

May I ask you whether any such orders have been issued to that department? If so, when & why? Ans are there any letters that were intercepted and never delivered to me?

I would request you to kindly give a direct plain and detailed reply to it. Moreover, will you please let me know what led you to issue such orders?

Awaiting an early reply

Yours obediently,

Sd/- Bhagat Singh

When there was no response from the Punjab government, Bhagat Singh wrote a reminder on November 28, 1926, asserting his right to get a reply as an honest citizen:

C/O The Himalaya Ass: Co: Ld:

Lohari Gate

Lahore, 28th November, 26


The Secretary

The Punjab Government,



I beg to draw your kind attention towards my last letter dated 17th November, 1926, sent under a registered cover, which was received by you the very next day. It is more than a week since, and I have altogether failed to receive any reply to the same.

I had sent a copy of the Post Master’s letter dated 16th Nov: addressed to me telling me that my letters were intercepted under the orders of the Punjab Govt:. Naturally I was very anxious to know what led the Punjab Govt: to issue such orders. I think that as an honest citizen I have a right to enquire such a question relating to myself. But I have not received any reply to that letter. Will you kindly send a reply to the same at an early date and also let me know the cause of this delay?

Hoping to be favoured soon.

Yours obediently,

Sd/- Bhagat Singh

The letters to the Punjab government elicited a response from no less than the Chief Secretary of Punjab, H.D. Craik, on November 27, 1926, informing him that it was the Governor of Punjab himself who gave the order for interception and censuring of his mail/post. One wonders how such a powerful British colonial regime became so scared of a 19-year-old boy.

Chief Secretary H.D. Craik’s response was as follows:

No: 9349-S.B.


H.D.Craik, C.S.I-, I.C.S.,

Chief Secretary to Govt: Punjab


S. Bhagat Singh C/O the Himalya

Assurance Company Ltd:, Lohari Gate


Dated Lahore the 27th November, 1926.


In reply to your letter, dated the 17th November, 1926, I am directed to inform you that orders for the interception of your correspondence were issued by the Governor of the Punjab in council in accordance with the provisions of section 26(1) of the Indian Post Office Act, 1898(VI of 1898), as amended by section 6 of the Indian Post Office (amendment) Act of 1912 (III of 1912)

I have etc…

Sd/- H.D.Craik

Chief Secretary to Govt: Punjab

The next two letters by Bhagat Singh addressed to British officials are part of the correspondence relating to his first arrest on May 29, 1927, and release on bail bonds on July 4, 1927.

Interestingly, Bhagat Singh refers here to Punjab Assembly question in regard to his arrest and bail bonds by Dr Gopi Chand Bhargava, MLC, who became the first Chief Minister of East Punjab after Partition.

In this context, one letter of May 1929 was already available, now two earlier letters of May and June 1928 have also been found.

The following is Bhagat Singh’s letter to the District Magistrate of Lahore with regard to the cancellation of his bail bonds:


Shahanshahi Kutia,

Sutarmandi, Lahore 9.5.28


The District Magistrate



Kindly let me know the exact date on which my personal bond: for Rs 20000/- and bail bonds & surities for Rs 20000/-each (in the case Crown vs Bhagat Singh section 302 I.P.C.) were cancelled, as stated by the hon: Sir Geoffrey and De-Montmousery in reply to starred question no. 1386(d) put by Dr. Gopi Chand Bhargwa M.L.C. on the 8th instant in the Punjab Legislative Council.

An early reply will highly oblige

Yours etc.

(In the hand of S. Bhagat Singh. No Signature)

The last of Bhagat Singh’s recently discovered five letters was written to the Superintendent, Punjab C.I.D., Lahore on June 19, 1928:

Shahanshahi Kutia


Lahore, 19 VI’28


The Superintendent

Punjab C.I.D. (Political)


Dear Sir,

I am sorry to say that I have not received any reply to my last letter requesting to return all my clothes and papers that were taken from my body at the time of my arrest on May the 29th 1927, and the clothes and books that were sent by my father while I was in the police custody. Will you kindly let me know by the return when and where can I get the same?

Hoping to be favoured soon.

Yours etc.

Shahanshahi Kutia

Sutarmandi, Lahore

One tribute to Bhagat Singh after his execution is also found in these papers. This tribute is by Azad, who could not be Chandrashekhar Azad as he was martyred one month before Bhagat Singh’s execution. At best as reflected from language and style, it could possibly be of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was a very senior Congress leader then and later too.

S. Bhagat Singh (after death)

The execution of S. Bhagat Singh was felt in India as something more than a public calamity; men, women and boys turned pale, as if they had heard of the loss of a dear friend, they wept whole the night. An object of our admiration and affection, of our pride and of our hope was suddenly taken from us and it seemed as if we had never till then, known how deeply we loved and revered him. India had lost in its great hero-a patriot. He cannot be said to have fallen prematurely whose work was done. The most triumphant death is that of a martyr; the most awful of that of the martyred patriot. He has left us, not indeed his mentle (sic) of inspiration, but a name and example, which are at this hour inspiring thousands of the youth of Mother India, a name which is our pride and an example which will continue to be our shield and our strength. Thus it is that the spirits of the great and the wise continue to live and to act after them.

Sd/- Azad

It is interesting that one keeps on finding Bhagat Singh’s writings even after 88 years of his execution. Who knows, the writings handed over by Bejoy Kumar Sinha to an unknown contact for safe-keeping and said to be destroyed may one day be found and may help the people of India know Bhagat Singh better, more deeply.

Chaman Lal, a retired Professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University and author of a few books on Bhagat Singh, has set up the Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre at Delhi Archives of the government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi.

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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.

PM Imran Khan’s distortions about Jinnah-Yasser Latif Hamdani

Posted by admin On December - 17 - 2018 Comments Off on PM Imran Khan’s distortions about Jinnah-Yasser Latif Hamdani


At the outset one must ask Prime Minister Imran Khan this: Sure you want to make a Riyasat-e-Medina or establish a rightly guided caliphate, by all means do it but what is the point in ascribing to Jinnah these ideas when he never used any such idea ever? The 1943 session of the Muslim League is instructive.  Dr Abdul Hamid of Bombay moved a resolution at this session calling for the future government of Pakistan to be based on the principles of Khilafat-e-Rashda. It was withdrawn at Jinnah’s own insistence. Jinnah called such a resolution censure on every Leaguer in his speech. At no point did Jinnah refer to the holy and sacred concepts of Medina or Khilafat-e-Rashida during the Pakistan Movement. He understood that these principles were subject to misinterpretation and sectarian disputes and therefore kept them away from the Muslim League. Only recently an Indian professor – rabidly anti-Pakistan – called Venkat Dhulipala tried to argue that the Pakistan Movement sought to create a new Medina.  However when asked by several historians and authors where Jinnah or his closest associates ever used this terminology, he failed to come up with a single instance and admitted that he had relied on some popular literature by a few right wing Maulanas only.

Prime Minister Imran Khan on Saturday tweeted an old video of late Dr Israr Ahmad to show that “Naya Pakistan” was actually Quaid-e-Azam’s own idea. In the video Israr Ahmad quotes Dr. Riaz Ali Shah’s account of Jinnah’s last days in Ziarat, apparently published in Jang newspaper on 11 September 1988. In it Dr Israr Ahmad claims that Jinnah wanted Khilafat-e-Rashda as the model for Pakistan. Dr Riaz Ali Shah’s little booklet however is available on record and contains no such reference.  Jinnah at no point refers to Khilafat-e-Rashda or Medina according to late Dr Riaz Ali Shah.  This is yet another example of the religious clergy and vile sectarian bigots like late Dr Israr Ahmad creating alternative facts. What is amazing is that Imran Khan the Prime Minister of the country decided to put up this fake news as fact on his twitter account. Is there no shame? Is there no end to this lying and distortions of history? In Imran Khan we have a supposedly democratic version of General Zia trying to finish off whatever was left and in the process creating new myths and lies for public consumption.

Jinnah was born a Khoja Ismaili and later due to differences with Aga Khan over his sister Maryam’s marriage outside the Ismaili Aga Khani community, converted to Ithna Ashari Khoja of the Bombay Jamaat. He continued to pay his dues to the Jamaat till his dying day despite being notoriously irreligious. The person that Imran Khan sought to quote on Jinnah, Dr Israr Ahmad was known for his vile bigotry against Shias and his abusive language against Jinnah himself.  At one point Israr had criticized Jinnah for having a Hindu as the law minister and an Ahmadi as the foreign minister.  On his visits to India, Dr Israr Ahmad was prone to telling Indian Muslims of his sectarian persuasion that Jinnah was a Shia kafir and would use the same language for Pakistan that his spiritual ancestors had used against the country in the 1940s.  To Imran Khan though Dr Israr Ahmad seems to be a historian of some kind.  Have some shame Mr. Prime Minister at long last.

At no point did Jinnah refer to the holy and sacred concepts of Medina or Khilafat-e-Rashida during the Pakistan Movement. He understood that these principles were subject to misinterpretation and sectarian disputes and therefore kept them away from the Muslim League

History in Pakistan was murdered brutally during the 1980s. Jinnah’s secular quotes were hidden away. His speeches were burnt.  Instead Zia tried  – much in the same fashion as Imran Khan tries today – to reinvent Jinnah as an Islamic figure.  At Zia’s time though there were still people alive who had seen Jinnah and met him and they pooh poohed the General’s shameless effort with the contempt it deserved.  However Imran Khan is operating in an era where most of Pakistan is under 35 years of age and has been educated under a biased and bigoted curriculum of lies that General Zia put in place.  Therefore it is even easier for the current Prime Minister to fool the people.

On a longer timeline you will do Pakistan untold damage and harm and do not for a minute assume that you are doing Islam any favours.  Islam does not need your lies and distortions.  You are damaging Islam Mr. Imran Khan not serving it. Islam’s message is contained in eternal movement and without the principle of eternal movement that Iqbal prescribed in his lectures on reconstruction of religious thought, you will only transform Islam into an ossified shell.  Ultimately you will drive people out of its fold. Or perhaps that is your objective after all. Either way you will end up destroying Pakistan’s democracy and bringing disrepute to the faith of Islam.

In any event it is a humble appeal to Prime Minister Imran Khan. Spare Mr. Jinnah. Let him rest in peace. Whatever you need to do, do it on its own merit.  Stop distorting history for god’s sake.

The writer is practicing lawyer and was a visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School in Cambridge MA, USA. He blogs at http://globallegalforum.blogspot.com and his twitter: @therealyl
Fair Use Notice
This web site may contain copyrighted material the use of which we are making only for educational purposes. This is a non -profit web site and does not accept any type of advertisement, paid or otherwise. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance the understanding of humanity’s problems and hopefully to help find solutions for those problems.

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.

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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Socialists and the fight against racism-Review by Bill Mullen

Posted by admin On December - 3 - 2018 Comments Off on Socialists and the fight against racism-Review by Bill Mullen


Histories of American socialism and the fight against racism in the early twentieth century are laden with flimsy myths. On one account, the socialist movement was indifferent or silent, a lie buttressed by endlessly repeated citation of Eugene Debs’ claim that “We [the Socialist Party] have nothing special to offer the Negro.” On another account, the left hurled itself uncritically and unilaterally into support of the Comintern’s “Black Belt Thesis” advocating for the secession of African-Americans in the US South as an oppressed national minority. These polarized, caricatured assertions prop up a wider liberal consensus hardened by American anti-communist drift that Karl Marx himself—and Marxism more generally—are Eurocentrically tone deaf to the centrality of race and racism in the formation of capitalism. This school of misrepresentation reached its apotheosis in Cedric Robinson’s influential 1983 book Black Marxism. As Paul Heideman notes in his Introduction, Robinson asserted that Marx “consigned race, gender, culture, and history to the dustbin.” This, in turn, gave birth to a neologism meant to replace Marx and historical materialism itself: racial capitalism.

Heideman’s well-curated and annotated anthology of writings by US socialists dispels each of these myths. It is the single best anthology on the topic yet published, providing a wide-ranging, nuanced, critical, and, importantly, interracial representation of writings on race by the US left. It serves four particular uses for historians and activists. First, it restores the central influence of Marx’s own writings on slavery, colonialism and race on twentieth century US socialists. Second, it clearly and judiciously diagrams competing arguments and debates among early twentieth century US socialists about how to understand and combat racism. Third, it recovers a number of figures, texts, journals, and newspapers where these debates occurred, restoring a fuller portrait of socialism’s dynamism at its apex of influence on popular US consciousness. Fourth, it acknowledges analytical weakness, residual racism, and failure in political practice as constant accompaniments to socialist organizing. This is a reflexive approach to our own socialist movement, and thus a more usable tool for our time.

Heideman’s book is structured into five sections. “The Socialist Party,” part one, includes the full text of Debs’s 1902 speech “The Negro in the Class Struggle” from which his “nothing special” line is taken. The speech, important to read in entirety, shows that Debs’s criticism of racism was unequivocal, and that the greatest weakness of his Socialist Party was an inability to develop a clear strategy for organizing the working class across racial lines.

A. M. Simons follows Debs. He was an early member of the Socialist Labor Party and editor of the International Socialist Review—for a time the preeminent socialist journal in the United States—wherein his essay “The Negro Problem” was first published. The essay is significant for locating slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction as cauldrons of unresolved US racial divisions in the working class, and as such shows the influence of Marx’s own writings. Heideman includes a key text by W. E. B. Du Bois—a member of the Socialist Party for one year—signaling his own ambivalence about socialist vacillation on interracial organizing—and two essays by Hubert Harrison driven by frustration with the Socialist Party’s compromises, especially in the South, where only Debs refused to speak to segregated audiences.

Heideman’s selections allow the reader to leave section one for section two on the Industrial Workers of the World with a clear understanding of why the latter felt it necessary to make interracial radicalism a cornerstone of the Wobbly movement. The IWW won two major victories organizing interracial unions: in the South (timber workers) and in Philadelphia where Ben Fletcher, a Black Wobbly, helped organize marine transport workers. In 1923, his essay “The Negro and Organized Labor” blasted the AFL and railroad brotherhoods for excluding Black workers. IWW leaders also reached out to Chinese and Japanese workers despite declaring, “To the I.W.W. there is not a race problem. There is only a class problem.” The IWW’s commitment to on-the-ground interracial organizing bested the Socialist Party during the World War I era.

The Wobblies also earned the support of Socialist Party members Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph when they launched the journal The Messenger in Harlem in 1917. Significantly, The Messenger also attracted writers from the Garvey movement, like W. A. Domingo. As much as any early twentieth century left journal, The Messenger represented African-American socialists in theoretical engagement with a broad menu of vital issues: not just racism but Bolshevism, World War I, labor organizing, strikes, and communist internationalism. Contradictions and weaknesses in The Messenger’s articulation of socialism are evident in its 1919 editorial “The Right and Left Wing Interpreted,” which simultaneously calls for interracial working-class revolution and a larger Black police force to keep down rioting. Owen and Randolph’s ardent support for Bolshevism morphed into a conservative drift as the Russian Revolution sputtered in the 1920s.

Heideman devotes an entire section of the book to The Crusader, a newspaper founded in 1918 by Caribbean immigrant Cyril Briggs. The weight assigned to what Heideman calls”project of one man” foregrounds the paper’s role as a bridge between Black nationalism and socialism after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Brigg’s secret companion society to the paper, the African Blood Brotherhood, attracted radicals like Claude McKay seeking to produce within socialist politics an analysis of radical Black nationalism, anti-colonialism, and imperialism. Significantly, McKay would join the Communist Party and travel to Moscow to testify on the conditions of Black Americans, giving momentum to Bolshevik support for Black self-determination. Essays here like the African Blood Brotherhood’s “Program” for Black liberation published in 1921 are key primary sources for understanding how US and West Indian revolutionaries shaped left internationalism after 1917.

The book’s final section, “The Communist Party,” has several strengths: it features the key documents produced by the Communist International on Black liberation—the Theses of the Second and Third Cominterns (the “Black Belt Thesis”); it carries entries by most of the leading theorists on Black liberation in the CP orbit—Robert Minor, Jay Lovestone, Lovett FortWhiteman, William Z. Foster; and it recuperates lesser known nuggets, like John Reed’s 1920 essay, “The Negro Question in America.” Heideman’s head notes, proficient throughout, are especially useful in this section, tracking the onerous effects of Stalinism on both shifts in the CP line, and more tragic effects like Fort-Whiteman’s incarceration and death in a Soviet prison camp. Where could Heideman’s volume be stronger? The book has only two female contributors—Kate Richards O’Hare and Jeannette Pearl. This limitation reflects the sexism of this period, which generated male dominance in the “theoretical” milieu of the early twentieth-century left, but the book might have added journalistic pieces by Grace Campbell, who joined the Socialist Party and Communist Party and helped co-found the African Blood Brotherhood, or Fanny Austin, who wrote on day workers, or Bell Lamb, who wrote on Black women in industry. The decision to end the book at 1930 also bespeaks the need—well established by this volume—for a sequel that includes the World War II period and the “popular front.”

That said, Heideman’s volume demands a place on every radical’s bookshelf. The text is as useful for political reading groups as for the classroom. It is an indispensable weapon for all of us in the fight against capitalism and racism.

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The fiction of the Ideology of Pakistan-Yasser Latif Hamdani

Posted by admin On December - 3 - 2018 Comments Off on The fiction of the Ideology of Pakistan-Yasser Latif Hamdani


On the Higher Education Commission’s data base, one finds two PhD theses on Jinnah, one discussing his leadership skills and the other his brief time as the Governor General of Pakistan. Both are quite mediocre, badly researched and based on literature review of only a piddling subsection of the biographies on Mr Jinnah. It would seem that PhD on Jinnah is unofficially banned in Pakistan.

There is a very good reason for it and I only discovered it once I started researching my second book on the life of Mr Jinnah, which is a detailed biography of our founding father to be published by an international publisher. Since this was a very serious undertaking, I spent the last several months going through the great man’s speeches and letters right from his days in Lincoln’s Inn to his dying day.

The answer to why the committed secularist, Indian Nationalist and the Best Ambassador of Hindu Muslim Unity turned into an apostle of Muslim Nationalism is there in that primary record for those who want to actually research it. It also contains conclusive answers to what kind of state Jinnah wanted and what his ideas were with respect to citizenship, constitution and organisation of the state. No the answer cannot be found in snippets and out of context quotes but you have to see the documents in a continuity as a lawyer would in the process of due diligence. The reason why PhDs on Jinnah are actively discouraged is because any honest perusal of the record would bury the fiction of the ideology of Pakistan as it is taught in Pakistani schools, colleges and universities. This ignorance and sheer dishonesty is not limited to Pakistan based professors and PhD scholars. Many a professor emeritus of political science who apparently taught at European Universities also suffer from this delusion that they can comment on history without looking at primary source record.

This legal fiction called the ideology of Pakistan has made it into our constitutional oaths but any attempts to get the courts or the parliament to define what it means inevitably fail. Ideology of Pakistan means essentially what General Ziaul Haq thought it was; which is that Pakistan was created as an ideological Islamic state

This legal fiction called the ideology of Pakistan has made it into our constitutional oaths but any attempts to get the courts or the parliament to define what it means inevitably fail. Ideology of Pakistan means essentially what General Ziaul Haq thought it was which is that Pakistan was created as an ideological Islamic state. Misquotes, fabricated quotes and quotes out of context are taken to prove this position and meanings are extracted from them which had nothing to do with the circumstances that led to the partition of India and the resultant twin Dominions that replaced British India as successor states. It has been invented to control constitutional democracy in Pakistan and give unelected institutions a whip to beat up elected ones from time to time.

It certainly has nothing to do with Jinnah, whose one major consistent theme was the unfettered march of humanity — something that he harked back to throughout his life in a multitude of his speeches. He did not believe for example that any one generation could bind the next for all times to come. This was the essence of Jinnah’s political thought — that nothing is static in politics and that the march of humanity will not be thwarted. A militarised Pakistani state at odds with its neighbour and non-identical fraternal twin was not what Jinnah had in mind. The mutual hatred and constant interference in each other’s affairs was not Jinnah’s idea of India post partition. This was not Jinnah’s idea of a Pakistani state.

A modern democratic state does not need an ideology of any kind to exist. Pakistan has to be what the people of Pakistan decide in consonance with Pakistan’s international obligations. It cannot be a shibboleth or an outmoded idea of national identity that can hold a country of 210 million people together. It is service delivery, economics, and constitutional rights. You cannot continue to impose this fiction of ideology of Pakistan on the state indefinitely, just as you cannot go on jailing legislators as was the case with Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, both gentlemen who I have huge disagreements but who are the elected representatives of the people. To treat them as they were treated in Peshawar recently is the defeat of reason, logic and power of persuasion. If you are going to drive people to desperation, you will force them into roles that they have so far abjured. By adopting Constitutional method of elections and democracy, Dawar and Wazir were putting their faith in the state to mature and finally become a democracy. By denying them their liberty you are undermining their freedom.

The powers that be in Pakistan need to rethink their hackneyed narrative and instead think of history, ideology and identity holistically, informed by real history and facts. No one can undo a country that has nuclear weapons, except its own people. Do not alienate our own people for god’s sake. Bury this fiction of the ideology of Pakistan and instead focus on making Pakistan a progressive and liberal state. Nothing will serve our people and indeed our religion better than a Pakistan that is at peace within and without, at home and abroad. This can be the only ideology that Pakistan can truly have because everything else is necessarily a personal choice and the personal faith of an individual. I did not say it, the founding father did. Time to follow to what he actually said instead of concocting a historical fiction that has no roots in reality.

The writer is practicing lawyer and was a visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School in Cambridge MA, USA. He blogs at http://globallegalforum.blogspot.com and his twitter handle is @therealylh

Published in Daily Times, December 3rd 2018.

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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.

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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Trotsky’s revolutionary ideas – originality or continuity?-By Paul Le Blanc

Posted by admin On December - 2 - 2018 Comments Off on Trotsky’s revolutionary ideas – originality or continuity?-By Paul Le Blanc


December 2, 2018 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – Although I consider myself a Trotskyist (just as I consider myself a Leninist and a Marxist), there is something that has gotten me into trouble with some friends who also identify as Trotskyists.[1]

Early in my short biography Leon Trotsky, I said: “A key dimension of Trotsky’s reputation is as a brilliantly innovative theorist.” That was okay – it was what came next that was the problem: “In looking at the ideas Trotsky put forward in his theoretical writings … I will be inclined to emphasize the aspects of unoriginality in Trotsky’s thought, especially in relation to the much-vaunted theory of permanent revolution, his analysis of Stalinism, his prescriptions for defeating Hitler, and the much misunderstood Transitional Program.  All these are drawn from Marx and from revolutionary Marxists of Trotsky’s own time, including the best of Second International Marxism in the period leading up to 1914, as well as the collective project of the early Third International.”[2] I want to focus, here, on the substance of what Trotsky had to say on such things as permanent revolution and Stalinism and so on.  But first I want to take a little time unpacking this originality thing.

I think it is very unhelpful to turn Leon Trotsky into some kind of ideological icon, with a special set of theories presented under the banner of “Trotskyism,” for the purpose of elevating him (and those of us who worship the icon) above the rest of humanity – or at least above everyone else on the Left.  It can also lead to the fashioning of ideological measuring rods, with which we can beat those among us who seem to deviate from the Master’s Doctrine.  I think it is especially unhelpful to have a competing set of labels: there go some Marxists, here comes a Leninist, and that one over there is a Trotskyist, then there’s a Luxemburgist, here’s a Gramscian, and so on.  Trotsky (and Marx and Lenin and Luxemburg and Gramsci) didn’t see things that way. Trotsky considered himself a revolutionary socialist, which was the same for him as a communist – although he did believe that the whole set of Marx’s ideas and way of approaching things was so impressive and valuable, that he was happy to call himself a Marxist.  This is also true of such people as Luxemburg, Lenin and Gramsci – and in my book From Marx to Gramsci, I seek to demonstrate that these three revolutionaries, along with Trotsky and Marx and Engels, are best understood as being close enough in methodological approach and practical political orientation to be grouped together.[3]

Trotsky had an advantage over the others, due to the banal fact that he was able to live longer, enabling him to apply Marxist analysis to the most horrific tyrannies of the twentieth century – Stalinism and fascism (particularly fascism’s most virulent form, Nazism).[4]  We’ll return to that shortly – but first, let’s consider how Trotsky was inclined to define the term Marxist – especially in relation to the term Leninist.

One of the places Trotsky explored this was in the voluminous notes for his unfinished biography of Stalin.  He noted, “Marxism is in itself a historical product and should be accepted as such.  This historical Marxism includes within itself three basic elements: materialist dialectics, historical materialism, and a theoretical critique of capitalist economy.”  He went on to assert: “Leninism is Marxism in action, that is, theory made flesh and blood.”  It’s not that Marx was a theorist instead of an activist – he was active in the Communist League of the late 1840s and the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) of the 1860s and early 1870s.  But, according to Trotsky, “Lenin’s work differs enormously from the work of Marx and his old comrades just as much as Lenin’s epoch differs from that of Marx.  Marx, the revolutionist, lived and died as the theoretical teacher of young parties of the proletariat and as a precursor of its future decisive struggles.  Lenin led the proletariat to the conquest of power, secured victory by means of his leadership, led the first workers state in the history of humanity,” through the Russian Revolution, at the same time working for the global triumph of working-class rule, especially through the Communist International.[5]

Of course, just as Marx was lucky to have what Trotsky calls “old comrades” who made essential contributions to what he thought and was able to do, so it was with Lenin – his achievements were necessarily part of a collective endeavor. His comrades were especially concentrated in a centralized organizational network within the Russian revolutionary movement, a network known as the Bolsheviks.  Their revolutionary Marxist perspectives reflected the lessons and insights of accumulated experience, to which Lenin gave voice, and these, in turn, were a decisive influence within the early Communist International.[6]

Unfortunately, the forces in and around the Communist International were not successful in extending revolutionary working-class victories to other countries. The working-class regime of Soviet Russia was not only isolated in a hostile capitalist world, but it was severely damaged by a brutal civil war, and devastated by multiple tidal-waves of economic crises.

Within the new Soviet Republic, this generated authoritarian habits and inclinations within the apparatus of the Communist Party and Soviet state.  A self-interested bureaucracy crystallized that claimed to represent the old revolutionary commitments but, in fact, was going in a very different direction.   As Trotsky explained in his 1937 testimony to the Dewey Commission, at this point (back in the early 1920s) the bureaucracy initiated a campaign in which “all the old formulae of Bolshevism were named ‘Trotskyist.’  That was the trick.  What was the genuine thing in Bolshevism is opposed to every privilege, to the oppression of the majority by the minority.”  Stalinists now denounced this as “the program of Trotskyism.”[7]

Trotsky’s distinctiveness is that, unlike many, he sought to remain true to the original revolutionary perspectives.  In a sense he became original simply through applying old principles – as consistently and creatively as he could – to new realities. This brings us back to Marxism.

Marxism fuses a view of history, an engagement with current realities, and a strategic orientation for replacing capitalism with socialism.  The dominant interpretation of history shared by Marxists of the early twentieth century went something like this: since the rise of class societies (with small, powerful upper classes of exploiters enriched by vast laboring majorities) there have been a succession of historical stages characterized by different forms of economy – ancient slave civilizations giving way to feudalism, which has given way to present-day capitalism.

The growth of capitalism was facilitated by democratic revolutions that swept away rule by kings and the power of landed nobles, making way for increasingly democratic republics and capitalist economies.  The victory of the capitalists (the bourgeoisie) paves the way for the triumph of industrialization and modernization.  This creates economic productivity and abundance making possible a socialist future (a thoroughly democratic society of freedom and plenty, in which there will be no upper class and no lower class).  Capitalism also creates a working-class (or proletarian) majority that potentially has an interest in, and the power required for, bringing into being a socialist future.

Many Marxists consequently believed that there must first be a bourgeois-democratic revolution, followed by industrialization and modernization, before the necessary preconditions for a proletarian-socialist revolution can be created.  There seemed a crying need for such a bourgeois-democratic revolution in economically “backward” Russia of the early 1900s.  It was a land oppressed by the Tsarist autocracy and landed nobility (to which capitalists were subordinated as junior partners), with a small working class and a large impoverished peasantry.  Many Marxists concluded they should fight for the triumph of such a bourgeois-democratic revolution, so that capitalist development could eventually create the economic and political preconditions for a working-class revolution that would eventually bring about socialism.

For some Russian Marxists (the Mensheviks, influenced by “the father of Russian Marxism,” George Plekhanov), this meant building a worker-capitalist alliance to overthrow Tsarism.  Lenin and his Bolsheviks – profoundly skeptical of the revolutionary potential of Russia’s capitalists – called instead for a radical worker-peasant alliance that would carry the anti-Tsarist struggle to victory.  But even they did not question the “orthodox” schema: first, a distinct bourgeois-democratic revolution paving the way for capitalist development; later – once conditions were ripe – a working-class revolution to bring about socialism.[8]

Yet from a Marxist point of view, this schema provides a theoretical and political puzzle.  If the working class is as essential to the democratic revolution as the Mensheviks claimed, and if their direct exploiters are the capitalists with whom they are engaged in class struggle, then how can these mortal enemies be expected to link arms as comrades in a common struggle? And if – as Lenin insisted – the workers must, in fact, turn their backs on the capitalists (in alliance with the peasantry) to overthrow Tsarism, what sense would it make for them in the moment of victory to turn power over to their cowardly exploiters?

“Trotsky alone [was able] to cut the gordian knot of the Marxism of the Second International,” my friend Michael Löwy has argued, “and to grasp the revolutionary possibilities that lay beyond the dogmatic construction of the democratic Russian revolution which was the unquestioned problematic of all other Marxist formulations.”  Yet scholars Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, in their massive documentary volume Witnesses to Permanent Revolution, have provided a sharp and persuasive challenge to this. “Leon Trotsky, while certainly the most famous and brilliant proponent of permanent revolution, was by no means its sole author,” is how they sum it up.  Among the others are Karl Kautsky, Alexander Helphand (who used the pen-name Parvus), Rosa Luxemburg, David Riazanov, Franz Mehring – and, one could add, Lenin, with his formulation “uninterrupted revolution.”  The phrase “permanent revolution,” and essential elements of the theory, can be found in works of Marx and Engels – especially in their writings of 1850.  With specific reference to Russia, the conceptualization crops up in their writings of the 1870s and 1880s – for example, in the 1882 introduction to the Communist Manifesto.[9]

Trotsky himself insisted that his “permanent revolution” conception overlapped with perspectives of other Marxists.  Some have characterized this as an effort to “minimize the originality of his conception” in order to “play down the supposedly ‘heretical’ nature of the theory of permanent revolution.”[10]  In fact, it seems Trotsky’s comments were grounded less in political expediency than intellectual honesty.  Far from being the unique innovation of Leon Trotsky, it is a perspective that flows naturally from the revolutionary conceptualizations inherent in the analyses and methodology of Marx himself.  “Trotsky is deeply committed to one element in classical Marxism,” as Isaac Deutscher has observed, “its quintessential element: permanent revolution.”[11]  Revolutionary-minded theorists and activists – seeking to apply such Marxism to the world around them – will naturally come up with formulations going in a “permanent revolution” direction.

Yet it was Trotsky’s sparkling prose that most clearly and boldly formulated the interrelated elements of permanent revolution.  Trotsky’s formulation linked the struggle for democracy – the end of feudal privileges (especially redistribution of land to the peasants), freedom of expression, equal rights for all, rule by the people – with the struggle for socialism, a society in which the great majority of people would control the economic resources of society, to allow for the full and free development of all.  It also linked the struggle for revolution in Russia with the cause of socialist revolution throughout the world.

Trotsky’s version of the theory contained three basic points.  One: The revolutionary struggle for democracy in Russia could only be won under the leadership of the working class with support from the peasant majority.  Two: This democratic revolution would begin a transitional period in Russia in which all political, social, cultural and economic relations would continue to be in flux, leading in the direction of socialism.  Three: This transition would be part of, and would help to advance, and must also be furthered by an international revolutionary process.

One might go further, beyond countries like Russia: permanent revolution has application in the capitalist heartland, not simply in the less developed periphery.  Struggles for genuine democracy, struggles to end militarism and imperialist wars, struggles to defend the environment from the devastation generated by capitalism, struggles simply to preserve the quality of life for a majority of the people, cannot be secured without the working class coming to power and overturning capitalism.  This means our own struggles in the here-and-now also have a “permanent revolution” dynamic.  Nor can socialist victory be secured without the spread of such revolutions to other lands. Trotsky insisted on (in his words) “the permanent character of revolution as such, regardless of whether it is a backward country that is involved, which only yesterday accomplished its democratic revolution, or an old capitalist country which already has behind it a long epoch of democracy and parliamentarism.” He added:
The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. . . . The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.[12]
But, again, this is plain Marxism, not some innovative theoretical twist of Trotsky’s.  And he never claimed otherwise.

After Lenin’s death, the rising bureaucratic apparatus headed by Stalin in the Communist Party and Soviet state instinctively gravitated toward a variant of “Marxism” that snapped all threads connecting the essential elements of Trotsky’s formulation of permanent revolution: connections between democracy, socialism, and internationalism. Stalin advanced the notion that this so-called “socialism” (burdened by scarcity and authoritarianism, problems that would eventually fade away if all comrades did what they were told) could be created in the Soviet Union itself, within a capitalist-dominated world.[13]  Therefore Communist parties in other countries (required to follow the Stalinist line) were expected to struggle for democracy and social reforms, but not socialist revolution, making alliances with “progressive capitalists” and creating regimes to peacefully coexist with the Soviet Union.  This approach was interrupted briefly, from 1929 to 1934, by a so-called “left turn” (which we will examine shortly).

As Tom Twiss documents in his fine study Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy, Trotsky’s early efforts to analyze Stalinism contained some serious misjudgments.[14]  Still, early on he got much of it right.  Describing in 1932 the typical functionary of the Soviet bureaucracy, “who manipulates the general line [of the Party] like a fireman his hose,” Trotsky was merciless: “He eats and guzzles and procreates and grows himself a respectable potbelly.  He lays down the law with a sonorous voice, handpicks from below people faithful to him, remains faithful to his superiors, prohibits others from criticizing himself, and sees in all this the gist of the general line.”   A few million such bureaucrats constituted the governing apparatus, he added, and a majority of them “never participated in the class struggle, which is bound up with sacrifices, self-denials, and dangers. … They are backed by the state power.  It assures them their livelihood and raises them considerably above the surrounding masses.”

Using the analogy of the bureaucratization of the top layers in trade unions and working-class political parties, raising themselves above the working class they claim to represent, Trotsky argued that “the ruling and uncontrolled position of the Soviet bureaucracy is conducive to a psychology which in many ways is directly contradictory to the psychology of a proletarian revolutionist.  Its own aims and combinations in domestic as well as international politics are placed by the bureaucracy above the tasks of the revolutionary education of the masses and have no connection with the tasks of international revolution.”  His analysis is summed up with a single conceptually packed sentence:  “ On the foundation of the dictatorship of the proletariat – in a backward country, surrounded by capitalism – for the first time a powerful bureaucratic apparatus has been created from among the upper layers of the workers, that is raised above the masses, that lays down the law to them, that has at its disposal colossal resources, that is bound together by an inner mutual responsibility, and that intrudes into the policies of a workers’ government its own interests, methods, and regulations.”[15]

Far from portraying Stalinism as the product of an evil genius, Trotsky sees it as related to the more general development of a bureaucratic-conservative dynamic naturally deriving from historical circumstances, conditioned by specific economic realities.  This involves an analytical methodology quite recognizable to those familiar with the approach of Karl Marx.

Nazism, and fascism in general, are similarly analyzed by Trotsky through the employment of basic Marxist categories (and dovetailing with other Marxist analyses – for example, those of Antonio Gramsci in Italy and of Rosa Luxemburg’s close comrade Clara Zetkin in Germany).[16] Before exploring Trotsky’s analysis of fascism, we should note another aspect of Stalinism – its ultra-left turn of 1929-1934.

By the early 1930s, the urgency of stopping Hitler and the Nazi movement from taking power in Germany was absolutely clear to Trotsky.  But such urgency was something that the mainstream of the Communist movement proved incapable of grasping.  The reason can be found in the political disorientation generated by Stalinism.

Stalin’s dictatorship resulted from the failure of socialist revolution to spread beyond the confines of what had been the huge and backward Russian Empire, contradicting Bolshevism’s original revolutionary-internationalist expectations.  The resulting authoritarian bureaucracy, which dominated not only Soviet Russia but the entire Communist International, adhered to a shallow pragmatism characteristic of such regimes.  When a global economic depression began to devastate the capitalist world in 1929, such shallow pragmatism allowed revolutionary hopes to balloon among the bureaucrats, but these were expressed in a mechanistic and bureaucratic form.

A theory of three “periods” was advanced by the Stalinists: the first period (1917-22) had been one of revolutionary upheaval, revolutionary flow; the second period (1922-29) had been one of revolutionary ebb and capitalist re-stabilization; and the new third period, opening with the Great Depression, would usher in capitalist collapse and revolutionary triumph.  The future belonged to the world Communist movement headed by Comrade Stalin.  The greatest threat to revolutionary victory was posed not by fascists and Nazis – they were seen as foolish demagogues who would prove helpless in the face of history’s revolutionary tidal wave.  The real threat consisted of left-wing working-class currents that were not part of the Stalinist mainstream in the Communist movement.  Such elements (whether moderate socialists or revolutionary socialists) threatened to mislead the workers, drawing them away from the true revolutionary leadership of Comrade Stalin.  This meant they were, ultimately and objectively, twins of the fascists – instead of socialists, they should be considered “social-fascists.”[17]

Street fighting between German Communists and Nazis became a daily routine in the early 1930s, but an alliance against the Nazis with the massive German Social-Democratic Party – the so-called “social-fascists” – was unthinkable. And if Hitler’s Nazis took power, in the view of Stalin’s followers, the masses would soon turn against them, leading to Communist triumph: “After Hitler – our turn!”  This outlook harmonized well with the fierce and brutalizing rapid industrialization and agricultural collectivization policies in the Soviet Union associated with Stalin’s murderous “revolution from above” of 1928-34.[18]

For Trotsky, the rise of Nazism could be explained by several convergent developments.  Nazism’s growing mass base came largely from what he viewed as “petty bourgeois” layers – farmers, shopkeepers, civil servants, white-collar employees, all of whom definitely did not want to be “proletarianized” and were becoming increasingly desperate for an alternative to the grim status quo and the deepening economic crisis.  They, and some “backward” layers of the working class, were for various reasons alienated from the “Marxism” associated with both the massive German Communist Party and the even more massive Social-Democratic Party, both of which were rooted in majority sectors of the country’s working class.  Petty bourgeois and alienated working-class elements flocked to a plebeian movement steeped in the ideological witch’s brew of super-patriotic nationalism and racism prevalent in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Germany. Fierce anti-Semitism was blended with vague anti-capitalist rhetoric.  Yet the Nazis drew much material support from substantial elements within the upper classes (aristocrats, financiers, industrialists) who detested Social Democrats and trade unions and who genuinely feared the possibility, particularly with the Great Depression, of the sort of Communist revolution that had triumphed in Russia a dozen years before.  The mass political movement the Nazis were building provided a counter-weight and ultimately a battering ram to smash the Marxist threat.

An essential ingredient in the growth of Nazi mass appeal was the earlier and ongoing failure of the major parties of the working-class left to provide a revolutionary solution to the problems afflicting society – the Social-Democrats thanks to the reformist and opportunistic moderation of their own bureaucratic leaders; the Communists thanks initially to their woeful inexperience, later compounded by the sectarian blinders of “third period” Stalinism. Especially when left-wing organizations and parties prove ineffective, Trotsky argued, petty bourgeois layers will be vulnerable to fascist appeals, drawing the more conservative layers of the working class along with them – which is exactly what was happening in regard to the Nazi movement, as masses of Germans were attracted by Hitler’s sweeping authoritarian certainties.

Trotsky called for a united front of Social-Democrats and Communists (including, as well, the dissident fractions of each), drawing on a conceptualization which the early Communist International had been won to – by Lenin, Trotsky himself, and others:  the notion that a working class divided between reformists and revolutionaries could still defend and advance its interests through a fighting unity. A united front must be formed, and within this context the revolutionaries, as the most effective fighters, could ultimately win the adherence of a working-class majority. This dynamic played out in Russia in 1917, when the reactionary General Kornilov was defeated by united working-class action, in turn giving the Bolsheviks predominant influence in the working class.  “Should the Communist Party be compelled to apply the policy of the united front, this will almost certainly make it possible to beat off the fascist attack,” Trotsky argued.  “In its own turn, a serious victory over fascism will clear the road for the dictatorship of the proletariat” – that is, for the working class to take political power and initiate a transition to socialism.[19]

In addition to breaking the Nazi threat and bringing a socialist transition in Germany, such a revolutionary development would likely generate similar revolutionary upsurges and transitions elsewhere, and by ending the Soviet Union’s isolation, thereby also helping to overcome the influence of Stalinism there and in the world Communist movement.  In addition to pushing aside the twin tyrannies of Hitlerism and Stalinism, the question is naturally raised whether such developments might have prevented World War II.

Of course, history took a more tragic turn.  Once Hitler came to power, the Communist International ultimately zig-zagged in the opposite direction, and by 1935 was calling for what some perceived as a sort of Super United Front – called the People’s Front or Popular Front. Communists were now supposed to unite not only with moderate socialists, but also (and especially) with liberal capitalist politicians, for the purpose of creating liberal capitalist governments that would form an alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler’s Germany.  Comintern spokesman George Dimitrov explained: “The toiling masses in a number of capitalist countries are faced with the necessity of making a definite choice, and of making it today, not between proletarian dictatorship and bourgeois democracy, but between bourgeois democracy and fascism.”  As historian E. H. Carr has noted, “Lenin’s ‘united front’ had been designed to hasten the advent of the proletarian revolution,” while “Dimitrov’s ‘popular front’ was designed to keep the proletarian revolution in abeyance in order to deal with the pressing emergency of Fascism,” adding: “care was taken not to ruffle the susceptibilities of those imperialist Powers whose support the Comintern was seeking to woo for the anti-Fascist front.”[20]

Time after time, over the eight decades since then, revolutionary socialists have found old-time Stalinists and moderate socialists alike aggressively pushing forward that same political line.  In arguing against that, Trotsky didn’t devise some new theory, but simply continued to apply the united front perspective guiding the Communist International under Lenin.

The insights and perspectives that Trotsky developed in his time still have resonance and value for our own time. Yet there is – in the conclusion of these remarks – a question of method that deserves attention.  It is related to Trotsky’s caution against devising a set of presumably “orthodox Trotskyist” or “orthodox revolutionary” tactics to be applied “from Paris to Honolulu,” as he put it.  In discussions with Trotsky and others in Mexico in 1938, a seasoned U.S. comrade (Charlie Curtiss) expressed a concern that Trotskyists from various countries, in his words, “have an extremely mechanical approach to the problems of permanent revolution.”  He urged that “emphasis should be placed upon the study of each concrete case, not upon abstractions only but upon each concrete case.”  Trotsky agreed, chiming in that “schematicism of the formula of permanent revolution can become and does become extremely dangerous to our movement in Latin America.”  In seeking to provide leadership in workers’ struggles, he emphasized, it made no sense to “pose an abstract socialist dictatorship to the real needs and desires of the masses.” Instead, revolutionaries must start from actual “daily struggles to oppose the national bourgeoisie on the basis of the workers’ needs,” through this approach “winning the leadership of the workers” via democratic mass struggles helping workers gain power.[21]

Related to this was Trotsky’s criticism of comrades who “substitute a [seemingly revolutionary] monologue for actual political work among the masses.”  He expressed the same concern in various ways, at another time warning against an inclination, as he put it, to “terrorize the workers by some abstract generalities and paralyze the will toward activity.”  It is important to listen to and learn from others, in order to be able to communicate revolutionary perspectives in a way that makes sense to people – or as Trotsky put it, revolutionary activists “should have in the first place a good ear, and only in the second place a good tongue.”[22]

This connects with what Trotsky is reaching for in the Transitional Program of 1938. “It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution,” he wrote. “This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”[23] Involving increasing numbers of people in actual mass struggles, in the here-and-now, for goals that seem quite reasonable to them but which come into sharp collision with the capitalist status quo – this is what helps to generate revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary struggle.

“How to mobilize the greatest possible numbers; how to raise the level of consciousness through action; how to create the most effective alliance of forces for the inescapable confrontation with the ruling classes” – this was the problematic with which Trotsky wrestled in this foundational document of the Fourth International, the global network of Trotskyist organizations. More than six decades after the founding, Fourth Internationalist Daniel Bensaïd shared his own understanding: “The concept of transitional demands overcomes sterile antinomies [contradictions or contrapositions] between a reformist gradualism which believes in changing society without revolutionizing it, and a fetishism of the ‘glorious day’ which reduces revolution to its climactic moment, to the detriment of the patient work of organization and education.”[24]

Here again, such insights are hardly unique to Trotsky. They are certainly essential to his politics, but they have also been an integral element in the methodology of revolutionary Marxism over the past 160 years, and part of the collective wisdom of the international workers’ movement for even longer.  They can certainly be found in Lenin and in the first four congresses of the Communist International.  And they can be found in Rosa Luxemburg’s earlier admonition at the dawn of the twentieth century, that the uncompromising struggle for social reforms is the pathway for the working class in achieving the consciousness, the confidence, the organization and the experience for realizing the aim of the socialist revolution.[25]

The fact remains that, along with the other aspects of the revolutionary ideas of Leon Trotsky touched on in these remarks, such challenging conceptualizations can be useful for us as we seek, today and tomorrow, to build effective struggles for freedom and socialism.

[1]This article is based on a talk given on July 5, 2018 at a conference in Chicago called Socialism 2018, which can be listened to at https://wearemany.org/a/2018/07/revolutionary-ideas-of-leon-trotsky.

[2]Paul Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky(London: Reaktion Books, 2015), pp. 13-14. Two expressions of the criticism can be found in generally friendly reviews by Jeff Mackler, “Leon Trotsky, Revolutionary Fighter,” Socialist Action, October 15, 2015, https://socialistaction.org/2015/10/15/leon-trotsky-revolutionary-fighter/, and by Michael Löwy, “A most intelligent and insightful presentation of Trotsky’s thought and historical action,” International Viewpoint, 3 May 2015, http://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article4010.

[3]Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci, A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), the elaboration of the common ground and continuity being made in the book’s long introductory essay, pp. 3-145.

[4]A representative collection of Trotsky’s writings in this later period is offered in Kunal Chattopadhay and Paul LeBlanc, eds., Leon Trotsky, Writings in Exile(London: Pluto Press, 2012).  One could argue that Gramsci – who lived until April 27, 1937 – was also in a position to analyze both fascism and Stalinism.  But his ten-year imprisonment blocked Gramsci’s ability to grapple with the German variant of fascism, as well as with the nature and meaning of Stalinism. Despite important insights, his analyses of the latter were sometimes “evasive” and necessarily “limited,” as noted in Emanuele Saccarelli, Gramsci and Trotsky in the Shadow of Stalinism: The Political Theory and Practice of Opposition(New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 54.

[5]Leon Trotsky, Stalin, An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence, ed. by Alan Woods and Robert Sewell (London: Wellred Books, 2016), pp. 723, 724, 733.

[6]This is demonstrated – massively and well – in the seven-volume work of John Riddell and his collaborators on the early years of the Communist International, five published by Pathfinder Press and two published by Haymarket Books. Also see additional writings on the Communist International by John Riddell, available at his internet site “Marxist Essays and Commentary” – https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/.

[7]The Case of Leon Trotsky, Report of Hearings on the Charges Made Against Him in the Moscow Trials(New York: Merit Publishers, 1968), p. 319.

[8]For Trotsky’s account, see “Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution” in Stalin, pp. 763-780.

[9]Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), p. 43. Documentation on common ground between Trotsky and others can be found in Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, eds., Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record(Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2009), and in Teodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and “The Peripheries of Capitalism”(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).  On Lenin, see Löwy, pp. 34-36, and Paul Le Blanc, “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party: A Revolutionary Collective,” Links, Journal for Socialist Renewal, July 10, 2018, http://links.org.au/lenin-bolshevik-party-revolutionary-collective.

[10]Löwy, p. 40. Löwy’s interpretation is powerfully and capably re-emphasized in the first part of an article (co-authored by Paul Le Blanc, who was responsible for the second part of that article) entitled, “Lenin and Trotsky” in Norman Levine and Thomas Rockmore, eds., The Palgrave Handbook of Leninist Philosophy(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).

[11]Isaac Deutscher, Introduction,” The Age of Permanent Revolution, A Trotsky Reader (New York: Dell, 1964), p. 18.

[12]Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), p. 279.

[13]For more on the nature of Stalinist theory, practice and sources, see Paul Le Blanc, Reflections on the Meaning of Stalinism,” Crisis and Critique, Vol. 3, Issue 1, 29 March 2016, http://crisiscritique.org/ccmarch/blanc.pdf.

[14]Thomas M. Twiss, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015).

[15]Leon Trotsky, “What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat” (January 27, 1932), in Leon Trotsky, The Struggle against German Fascism, ed. by George Breitman and Merry Maisel (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), p. 213.  The most complete and rounded analysis can be found in Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed(New York: Doubleday Doran, 1937, which is consistent with the excerpt quoted here.

[16]See analyses of fascism in Antonio Gramsci, An Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, ed. by David Forgacs (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), pp. 135-185, and in Clara Zetkin, Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, ed. by Mike Taber and John Riddell (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).

[17]It has been shown that Nikolai Bukharin, briefly Stalin’s ally, played a key role in this “third period” theorization, but Stalin and those closest to him utilized it in far more extreme and destructive ways – see Nicholas N. Kozlov and Eric D. Weitz,“Reflections on the Origins of the ‘Third Period’: Bukharin, the Comintern, and the Political Economy of Weimar Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 24, No. 3, July 1989); also Georg Jungclas, “The Tragedy of the German Proletariat,” in Ernest Mandel, ed., Fifty Years of World Revolution, 1917-1967, An International Symposium(New York: Merit Publishers, 1967); and Theodore Draper, “The Ghost of Social Fascism,” Commentary, February 1967, https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-ghost-of-social-fascism/#16.

[18]E.H. Carr, Foundations of a Planned Economy, 1926-1929, Volume Three-II (London: Macmillan Press, 1976), pp. 638-643; C.L.R. James, World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, ed. by Christian Høgsbjerg (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), pp. 306-348; Allan Merson, Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany(London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1985), pp. 19-22, 71-72.

[19]Trotsky, “What Next?” in The Struggle against German Fascism, p. 254.

[20]Georgi Dimitroff, The United Front: The Struggle Against Fascism and War(New York: International Publishers, 1938), p. 110; E.H. Carr, The Twilight of the Comintern, 1930-1935(New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), pp. 419, 426.

[21]“Latin American Problems: A Transcript, November 4, 1938,” in Writings of Leon Trotsky, Supplement 1934-40, ed. by George Breitman (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1979), pp. 782, 783, 784.

[22]“The Social Composition of the Party,” in Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1936-37, ed. by George Breitman (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), 489, 490.  See also Dianne Feeley, Paul Le Blanc, Thomas Twiss. Leon Trotsky and the Organizational Principles of the Revolutionary Party(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).

[23]Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution(New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), p. 75.

[24]Daniel Bensaïd, Strategies of Resistance and “Who Are the Trotskyists?”(London: Resistance Books, 2009), p. 23.

[25]Rosa Luxemburg, “Reform or Revolution,” in Paul Le Blanc and Helen C. Scott, eds., Socialism or Barbarism: the Selected Writings of Rosa Luxemburg(London: Pluto Press, 2010), p. 48.


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