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Archive for May, 2019

What happened to the International Socialist Organization?-Paul LeBlanc

Posted by admin On May - 28 - 2019 Comments Off on What happened to the International Socialist Organization?-Paul LeBlanc


What happened to the International Socialist Organization (ISO) is that it self-destructed. The outgoing leadership of the outgoing organization presented this fact to the world in its statement of April 19, 2019, “Taking Our Final Steps”. For many who are committed to the socialist cause, whatever criticisms or reservations they might have had regarding the ISO, this is truly a defeat. One of the purposes of what follows is to explore how and why this happened, and what it means for those who take seriously the struggle for revolutionary socialism.
For some years the ISO had existed as the largest and strongest revolutionary socialist organization in the United States. As its foremost leader, Ahmed Shawki, emphasized more than once, the primary take-away from this indisputable fact was that revolutionary socialism was a pitifully weak force in the United States. And yet, the disappearance of this organization certainly merits more than a shrug.
Despite facile critiques of the ISO generated by sectarian hostility, and despite genuine weaknesses and limitations of the organization (to be touched on later), there is no denying that the ISO demonstrated certain genuine strengths. Those strengths were a focal-point of an article I wrote in 2009, explaining why, despite some disagreements, I was about to join the ISO – “Why I’m Joining the International Socialist Organization: Intensifying the Struggle for Social Change,” appearing in the online Links: international journal of socialist renewal. There is little I would change in what I wrote then. But now, obviously, there is more that must be said.
While an active member of the ISO since 2009, I have never been part of its leadership. Nor have I been an “insider” in any of the political currents that wrote the final chapter of the ISO’s existence. From mid-January to mid-April of 2019, when this final chapter was playing itself out, I was not even present in the United States.
The collapse of the ISO in April 2019 has certainly generated confusion in circles that I frequent. I have been confronted by comrades with many years’ experience in the socialist struggle, beyond the borders of the United States, questioning how an organization claiming to represent some of the finest elements in the revolutionary Marxist tradition could so suddenly vanish.
A dissident majority took over their organization in the name of making it a more effective force for socialism, and then . . . quickly decided to dissolve it. This is certainly how it seemed from the outside, and how it appeared to me as I watched the process unfold during a three-month period while working in Europe. It can be argued, however, that this conflates a much more complex set of processes. The process that contributed to the majority takeover was different from the process that culminated in the decision to dissolve.
https://johnriddell.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/down-with-the-ban.jpg?w=… 150w” sizes=”(max-width: 301px) 100vw, 301px” />In the aftermath, my interrogating friends have been shocked – and I must confess that I too have been startled – by what has appeared across the internet from some quite vocal adherents of this triumphant and self-dissolving majority, explaining that they have been violated terribly by pernicious leaders, devastated by insult and injury. Some have displayed what seems to these seasoned activists an almost prideful disillusionment and a sometimes flippant cynicism.
This too raises questions, in the minds of interrogating friends, about how serious a revolutionary entity this organization could have been in the first place. Seeming to fade very much into the background, aside from a rhetorical flourish here and there, is the question of what it will take – actually, today and tomorrow, in very practical and organizational terms – to bring about an effective struggle against the multiple oppressions and poisonous degradations of capitalism. Instead, the primary focus has been on exposé, indignation, anger, pain, at times flowing into a destructive and depressing trashing of former comrades and former beliefs, with contributions laced with one variety or another of “purist” conformism, followed by multiple “likes” spiced by jokes and flashes of going one better than what the last person said. Some inclined to disagree have held back – in some cases because of their own demoralization and uncertainty, in some cases because they do not want to become the focal-point of online trashing. All of this has seemed to my outside interrogators to be the opposite of serious revolutionary politics.
Yet some of their critical reaction misses key facts and aspects of what actually happened. Nor can anyone who is politically serious – at least from the revolutionary end of the socialist spectrum – afford to be dismissive over the demise of the ISO. Consider these reflections from a seasoned and critical-minded militant from Chicago, with more than five decades of activist experience in the labor and socialist movement, who had never belonged to the ISO. His internet comments (April 19, 2019), endorsed by a number of people with similar experience and background, and are worth producing in full:
In his recent interview with [prominent former ISOer] Todd Chretien, Doug Henwood remarked about the ISO that it often punched above its weight. Bracketing its political positions and its organizational short-comings — who are we to cast the first stone? — Henwood called that one right. Given the standards of the American far-left it was indeed a “solid” presence.
In Chicago the ISO’s five branches had a real periphery, and they were recruiting at a slow, but steady, rate. These recruits were almost all young, raw activists. As recently as three months ago, they routinely drew eighty to a hundred people to city wide public forums.
Over the last eight years the ISO’s half-a-dozen CTU [Chicago Teachers Union] members have played a significant role in keeping the union involved in progressive causes from BLM [Black Lives Matter] to Fight For Fifteen. The CTU lit the fuse that eventually led to the “Red State Revolt” [the recent upsurge of teachers’ strikes]. Many ISO comrades spent extended time in Oklahoma and Los Angeles, not only as reporters, but also as participants.
Socialist Worker, both as a printed monthly, and as a daily on line, provided well written, and informative articles. Even when I disagreed with the conclusions, I generally learned something from them.
The ISR (International Socialist Review)  was an attractive quarterly with often scholarly contributions. Again, it wasn’t necessary to agree with all its conclusions, but isn’t contested opinion what Marxism demands us to do?
The annual Socialism Conference provided a platform for sessions beyond the ISO’s membership. It began with the premise that there is a need to relate to a bigger left than its own 800 or so members. Last year’s conference had around 1,200 attendees.
Better Off Red was its weekly podcast. WeAreMany contains hundreds of classes and talks ranging from the forgettable to the extraordinary.
Haymarket Books is, perhaps, the Crown Jewel in the ISO’s legacy.
Size and apparatus aren’t the only thing, they are not sufficient onto themselves in breaking out of the ghetto of the micro sect, but at the same time they are essential in carrying the hard won lessons of the past into the future. With flaws and mistakes granted, the ISO came close to playing that role. It leaves a vacuum on the American left that will be hard to fill with squabbling grouplets and contentious individuals.
Outside of its strongest center in Chicago, the ISO had branches (typically ranging between five and fifty members) and “twigs” (less than five members) throughout the country – 22 in the East, 19 in the Midwest, 10 in the South, and 10 in the West. The members were active socialists, some with significant influence beyond the ISO. For anyone who truly hopes to see a socialist future, it is essential to wrestle with the question of how and why such an organization could go out of existence. What can we learn? How can things be done better?
https://johnriddell.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/tax-the-rich.jpg?w=150&h… 150w” sizes=”(max-width: 262px) 100vw, 262px” />What follows will involve three components: (1) a summary of what I can piece together regarding what actually happened; (2) a tentative (and surely incomplete) analysis of why/how this happened; (3) notes on what those of us still committed to the revolutionary Marxist tradition might consider doing now. Analyses of what happened to the ISO have appeared online – some “connecting the dots” in a way that reinforces one or another very distinct ideological perspective, some reflecting a significant lack of political (and in some cases factual) clarity, some providing interesting ideas and possible insights but not – in my opinion – fully satisfactory. With one exception, I will not make reference to them as I try to work out my own understanding.
What happened
First were the tremors preceding the earthquake. The organization’s annual convention was coming up in March 2019, with pre-convention discussion opening in the autumn of 2018. A deep and open split soon rocked the ISO leadership body, the Steering Committee. An overwhelming majority of the Steering Committee constituted itself as an organized tendency. The once-dominant leaders of the ISO found themselves in a very small minority. A dissident upsurge took place within the membership, so that four tendencies emerged instead of two: Steering Committee Majority, Steering Committee Minority, Socialist Tide, Independence and Struggle (IS). This last tendency ended up being quite influential. It is described in an on-the-spot report from the national convention as having an orientation “not too dissimilar to the Majority position,” although “I felt it laid out actual proposals to move forward where the Majority current did not, particularly in the areas of party-building [tasks] and labor.” The IS tendency also seemed suspicious of some in the Steering Committee Majority who had long supported the once-dominant leaders.
From what I could gather from the massive pre-convention discussion (with an unprecedented number of pre-convention discussion contributions filling over 40 internal bulletins), there were several very clear issues that were of concern among those who were advancing the cause of the victorious rebellion.
There was need for greater openness and democracy in the election of leadership bodies (eliminating the self-perpetuation of leadership that resulted from outgoing leaders regularly presenting the organization with slates of candidates for new elections to those bodies).
There was insistence on greater transparency, collectivity, and accountability regarding the finances and functioning of the ISO.
There was also a decisive pushback against a routinism in branch practices, and against too great a focus on campus work, that had been promulgated by the leadership at the previous convention. Many had seen this conservative approach as being out of kilter, in the midst of accumulating social struggles, with the possibilities of a mass socialist movement taking shape in the United States.
Those whose leadership was being challenged were not, it seemed to me, villains or scoundrels – I had respected them as experienced people who had devoted their lives to building up a revolutionary current in the socialist movement. While definitely not in agreement with them on all things, and aware of some of their human limitations, I still saw them as reflecting the same kinds of values and commitments that had animated me and the other members of the ISO. Yet they seemed to have nothing substantial or coherent to say: the dissenters were dishonest and disloyal, “really” driven by a desire to support the Democratic Party. But this case was by no means proved. And they put forward nothing more, from what I could see, to provide any clear sense of political direction for the ISO.
Among the triumphant dissenters, however, there was also a lack of clarity around political strategy. A minority of the majority did favor rethinking the question of socialists in the Democratic Party. There was sharp and challenging thinking regarding connections of class, race and gender. There was a proposed “focus” on a variety of different struggles that seemed to add up, in fact, to a lack of clear focus. There were assurances that the new orientation (however that might actually be worked out) would result in membership growth, though it was not clear precisely how or why this would be the case.
From a few thousand miles away, I was inclined to see what were, clearly, impending changes as going in a positive direction – though the tone of some discussion bulletin articles worried me. There seemed an undercurrent of “good guys vs. bad guys” thinking, which can become toxic even in the service of the best of causes. I feared a split could result in the loss of valuable cadres and set into motion centrifugal forces that would weaken the organization. But I hoped for the best, and felt a kinship with those pressing for changes.
The earthquake came with the national convention – which was seen by many as a very democratic convention, culminating in a diverse new leadership. There was an absolute marginalization of the once-dominant and “intransigent” element of the old leadership, which didn’t seem inclined to put forward any clear political perspective in the face of this upheaval. I was out of the country when the convention took place. The best I can do is to offer this account from one of the Pittsburgh branch leaders who attended the convention:
Most of the proposals that stemmed from the IS [Independence and Struggle] current were adopted at convention including the perspectives on Labor concentration. A sharp yet comradely debate took place on the floor around the use of the Democratic Party and candidates like Sanders, AOC [Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez], etc. This was largely a debate between comrades supporting the IS platform and the Socialist Tide platform. The convention overwhelmingly supported the IS platform while also drawing important conclusions which were attributed to the Socialist Tide platform. And … our new leadership body includes representation from all three currents. …
In addition the proposal to allow branches to focus on real work and break from the monthly model of weekly meetings, paper sales, and study groups in addition to activist work was adopted. Branches will now have the freedom to decide what schedule makes sense for them. The weekly routines of the past were for many comrades overwhelming and easily led to burn out for many members, including myself. As a branch we will have to have some important discussions about our own routines and necessary changes to those routines so that we can free ourselves up to have a greater political impact.
We also have made some significant perspective changes particularly around the ISO’s campus perspective. This model has never quite fit our branch – this of course is no surprise to many of us. It has often felt like we were putting a square peg in a round hole for our branch, which has been mostly working class. This of course is not to say students are not working-class, but has led to some inorganic ways of working for us. Our branch was not the only one to report this and the moment we find ourselves in politically means we cannot have such a narrow focus.
And finally we accepted proposals to issue public apologies to address our shortcomings, particularly to comrades of color who have left the organization and those that have stayed to help shape our new organization. We are now in a much better position to rebuild in a more honest and transparent way, which will position us to grow and lead. We also adopted a proposal to publish a public report to summarize the debates and outcomes of our convention. … Another significant change was adopted to become a 501c4 organization, which will make our organizations finances more transparent as well as some changes in how dues are paid.
Weeks later, I had an opportunity to speak to another comrade whose assessment of the convention was much less positive. In contrast to previous conventions, he asserted, there was a marked absence of clear reports on the current political period, and of clearly articulated proposals flowing from such analyses. Instead, he told me, there were ongoing attacks on past organizational deficiencies and on the alleged misleadership that had been predominant up until then. He felt the acrimonious atmosphere prevented the marginalized former leaders from having an opportunity to express themselves in a manner that could be heard, short-circuiting serious political discussion.
I am in no position to make judgments either about the actual atmosphere or the specifics of discussions during the national convention. I know that at the convention’s conclusion there seemed among people I trust considerable optimism about the future of the ISO, and I hoped that optimism was well-founded, although I had an anxious feeling (based on accumulated memories from past organizational experiences) that things might not be so easy.
Then came the after-shocks. Two scandals erupted – (1) what was seen as a possible rape cover-up, and separate from this, though in some ways related, (2) revelations of what was seen as a pattern of abusive and unacceptable behavior by a central figure of the once-dominant leadership. Both indicated, in the minds of many, a badly flawed political culture at the organization’s core. Three additional facts of significance: (a) the alleged rapist, after getting off the hook, became a charismatic and popular leader of the triumphant IS tendency; (b) someone who was accused, perhaps unfairly, of facilitating the alleged cover-up was a prominent supporter of both the Steering Committee Majority and the IS tendency; (c) the person who revealed the unacceptable behavior of the central figure mentioned in point #2 had – she herself revealed – been involved in a covert relationship with that figure, but she was also a major force in the triumphant opposition.
This turn in the after-convention developments deserves strong emphasis. A very broad layer of members – dramatically disillusioned with the long-standing leadership after a very contentious internal debate, one with destructively personalized undertones – were now deeply shaken by what seemed shocking revelations having to do with key figures to whom they had looked for leadership in making the ISO a better, more vibrant and democratic organization. This would help unleash a public discussion that gave free rein to destructively personalized overtones.
The above-described earthquake and after-shocks resulted in a wave of resignations – from angry and disgusted dissidents, from marginalized and indignant former leaders, and from many others in between. As the organization seemed to be melting away, with plummeting morale among those who were left, a decision was made by the remaining membership, through a referendum, to dissolve the organization.
Although I feel what I have written so far provides some understanding of what happened, what must be wrestled with is why it happened.
Why it happened
The analytical framework I use in trying to make sense of what happened can be found in various writings (particularly the essays in Unfinished Leninism published by Haymarket Books in 2014), most recently articulated in “Reflections on Coherence and Comradeship,” published in various online sites, including Links: international journal of socialist renewal. What follows will not rehash those reflections, but they influence my analysis.
Avoiding sterile ‘vanguardism’

My thinking is very much influenced by my experience, from 1973 to 1983, in the US Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and in the milieu influenced by George Breitman, Frank Lovell and other veteran Trotskyists into the early 1990s. In my discussion of the ISO, I find myself drawn to making comparisons.
In some ways, the ISO was much better, more open, seemingly more democratic. While old mentors such as Breitman and Lovell were quite open and non-dogmatic in their approach, a dominant trend in the SWP, when I entered it, was less so.
There was often great suspicion in the SWP toward non-Trotskyist sources, and substantial cultural-intellectual pressure to conform to a specific set of views. One was expected to steer clear (in writing, publishing, speaking) of crowds and publications that were not “ours” – unless we were carrying out an “intervention” that was coordinated and guided by specified leaders. This was related to the notion that the SWP was, itself, the revolutionary vanguard party destined to lead the socialist revolution. Of course, we were not big enough to do so yet, but had a self-conception as the nucleus of the future mass revolutionary party. The dynamics of capitalism and the correctness of our own political program (a program which, therefore, must be strictly safeguarded) would bring about the desired results.
For reasons that I have explained in Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, in Unfinished Leninism, and elsewhere, this ran counter to the actual history and development of our presumed model – the triumphant Bolshevik organization that Lenin and other comrades fashioned in order to make the Russian Revolution of 1917. Some of the older, more seasoned comrades seemed to have a better grasp of this, but the dominant subculture within the SWP was more rigid, and the younger comrades, brought into the party thanks to the 1960s radicalization (my generation), were trained and shaped in that subculture.
The ISO was better, more open, than this. By the time I joined it (and a pre-condition for my seriously considering to join), it was no longer afflicted by the fatal self-conception that turns so many would-be Leninist organizations into sects. It was very clear that it could not be the revolutionary vanguard party or even the nucleus of the future mass revolutionary party. It recognized, as Lenin explained in Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, that the actual vanguard could not be a small group of self-proclaimed “vanguardists.” It could only be a layer of the working class, organically developing – under the impact of capitalism and the influence of socialist ideas – a consciousness, an accumulation of activist experience, a body of knowledge and know-how, and a deepening commitment to pushing back the oppression and destructiveness of capitalism, and struggling for a better world.
This revolutionary vanguard layer of the working class could not be produced artificially within the confines of one or another “Marxist-Leninist” organization. It would necessarily emerge from a more open and long-term process, and increasing numbers from this vanguard layer would organize themselves into groups dedicated to waging more effective struggles for dignity in the here-and-now and for a future society of the free and equal. In the midst of ongoing struggles and experience, some of these groups would come together, rallying even more activist workers into a common organizational framework – and this would constitute a revolutionary party worthy of the name.
The ISO had broken from the sectarian notion that it was the nucleus of the revolutionary vanguard party, enabling it to recognize that, along with others, it was part of a larger process through which such a party might actually come into being.
This allowed the ISO to be stronger and healthier, in important ways, than the SWP had ever been in the years of my own membership. There were other ways in which the ISO was different from the SWP, however, that struck me as making it far weaker.
Revolutionary continuity and activist experience

The SWP that I knew represented a revolutionary continuity – not simply in ideas and words and books, but in the actual life-experience of its members – that stretched back to the early decades of the twentieth century (the mass Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs and the vibrant Industrial Workers of the World of “Big Bill” Haywood), to the founding and initial decade of the Communist Party, to the very beginning of US Trotskyism, to the massive working-class battles of the 1930s and 1940s. The ideas and sensibilities, the know-how, the mode of functioning in a revolutionary organization and in broader social struggles, a familiarity with the dynamic interplay of Marxist theory and practical political work – all of this was part of a rich subculture within which we grew as political people.
The ISO that I knew lacked that amazing inter-generational enrichment. It was started in 1977, out of a factional battle and split within a relatively small socialist group, and it grew to a very large extent out of experiences on college and university campuses. Its leadership and membership were shaped in a very different way, with a far more restricted set of experiences, than was the case with the old SWP.
In the period in which I was in the SWP, its nature enabled it to play very significant roles in the actual social struggles and movements of its time. This involved an effective challenge to the war in Vietnam, a cutting-edge approach to the fight for black liberation, and an influential role in the struggle for women’s liberation. The ISO proved capable of organizing large, energetic contingents in mass marches around one or another issue, and certain of its members proved capable of playing outstanding roles in certain trade union and social movement contexts. But the practical activism in social movements that was essential for SWP branches (justifying the weekly meetings and disciplined functioning that characterized them) was not the norm for the ISO – and this deficiency was all-too-often justified by what struck me as pseudo-revolutionary strictures against “movementism.”
It is important not to distort this point, which can be done in more than one way.
First of all, we are dealing with different contexts – from the 1960s to the 1980s saw considerable activism, while the decades that followed (a formative period for the ISO) were characterized by a relative activist downturn.
Second, there were activist opportunities that ISO activists were able to engage with that provided essential experience for those involved. The radicalization within the Chicago Teachers Union, in some areas ongoing abortion clinic defense work, and the growth of Pittsburghers for Public Transit provide only some examples of consistent, sustained and highly respected ISO involvement.
The second point demonstrates, however, that the activist downturn by itself was neither complete nor capable of explaining away this particular deficiency within the ISO as a whole. It is certainly the case that ISOers would often throw themselves into activist opportunities and sometimes would almost chase after such opportunities, although sometimes then not quite knowing how to function.
Overall, and in contrast to the earlier SWP experience, the ISO was not successful in developing – as part of the internal culture of branches throughout the country – sustained and consistent activism as an essential element in the political experience and consciousness of the membership as a whole. In more than one branch there existed, as one comrade has put it, a strong tendency that involved spending “too much time ‘building the organization’ – that became an end in itself – which could be in tension with participation in actual struggle” (again, the presumed danger of “movementism”).
The lack of genuine experience in social struggles showed in more than one way. All too many “dissident” ISOers of earlier years (including some who became dissidents only after several years of ISO education and training) seemed not to comprehend the insight from the Communist Manifesto that “Communists do not … set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.” Instead, while fully engaging in the actually-existing working-class struggles (according to Marx and Engels), such Communists give voice to the need for a thoroughgoing and internationalist working-class solidarity, they emphasize the need for political independence from the capitalist class, and they point to a “line of march” of the actual struggles of the working class that must lead from resistance to oppression and violence under capitalism to a socialist democracy. To understand what this actually means, it helps to have a certain kind of practical experience all-too-often lacking in the ISO.
As a consequence, when some dissident comrades raised criticisms of ISO inadequacies, it was not around our failure to work with others in playing a substantial, ongoing, consistent role in the various struggles of our time. Instead it was that we were “adapting to reformism,” failing to stake out a truly revolutionary standpoint around which to wage the struggles. For example, some earlier dissidents deemed it “adaptationist” to accept the anti-war perspective of a united front coalition instead of counterposing to it the creation of an anti-imperialist contingent. Such a contingent might attract far-left forces around a revolutionary banner, and this was seen as superior to mobilizing greater numbers of people for a “merely” anti-war action. Fortunately, the ISO majority was not inclined to veer in such an ultra-left direction.
But the lack of consistent participation by ISO members in actual struggles undermined the political development of comrades in a different way. For some members, the ISO was more or less an affinity group of those who believed socialism is a good idea, and also an educational and discussion group for those who share such an affinity. More than this, it was an outreach organization designed to draw more such people into the socialist circle. That was the purpose of paper sales, public forums, socialism classes and even – in the minds of some – participation in political demonstrations.
Despite the involvement of ISO comrades in serious Marxist education, many were inclined to see what we were about in terms that were not seriously Marxist. For some comrades, there was an inclination to see the ISO as an association of the good people, of pure souls, standing up against the immorality and viciousness of capitalism, animated by the hope or promise that the working-class majority also has the potential for such purity – and when that majority comes closer and closer to our understanding of things, there will be increasing class struggles culminating in a socialist revolution. There was insufficient activist experience of any depth and consistency to enable some comrades to evolve very far beyond this political level.
Natural causes – and lessons to be learned

Some accounts of the ISO’s death come close to attributing it to suicide brought on by unendurable disillusionment, others to outright murder cooked up by a conspiracy of scoundrels within the organization’s ranks. Perhaps closer to the truth would be the assertion that the ISO died of natural causes. To die of “natural causes” refers to death from internal factors rather than death from external factors, such as trauma from an accident, or murder, or suicide. Of course, there remains the question of whether this “death by natural causes” had to take place just now – or if it might have been fruitfully delayed for a time. Nor can one be satisfied to just leave it at that: “died of natural causes.” Surely there is more to be learned from this experience.
At this point, I want to make use of what struck me as one of the most thoughtful of the analyses I have seen on the ISO collapse – an essay by Saman S and Adam T (who left the ISO before the final crisis), entitled “Socialism in One Organization: Notes on the ISO Crisis,” appearing in the March 21, 2019 issue of a now-defunct online journal Failed Harvest. There are aspects of the analysis that I find unpersuasive, and points in which a rhetorical flourish (such as “socialism in one organization”) get in the way of clear thinking. And yet there are elements of very clear thinking in it, in my opinion, that make it worth consulting.
The authors refer to the same strength noted above – the ISO had avoided the sterile error of seeing itself as the revolutionary vanguard party (or the nucleus of such a party); instead it saw itself, by helping to keep revolutionary Marxism intact, as an element in the future development of such a party, based as it must be in an actual radicalizing layer of the working class.
This is how they put it: “We, in effect, were keeping Marxist ideas and organization alive until the working-class could save us. At that future point, ‘the upturn,’ we could go ‘back’ into the class as fighters, armed with some memory of the historical struggle and theory.” They describe a residual element of sectarian vanguardism in the ISO’s self-conception: “We came, like most sects before us, to think we were leaders without an army, rather than what we really were: a group of would-be rank-and-file soldiers whose army had been defeated.” They add: “Our politics were mostly good in the abstract. But in practice we adapted to the hostile territory.”
Decisive is an identification of the contradiction embedded within the strength: there was a commitment to preserving the seeds of revolutionary Marxism for the future resurgence of the class struggle and a mass socialist movement; there was also a determination to protect the structure that was preserving these seeds. “When the upturn that was meant to save us finally came, with the return of strikes, with the return of socialism-as-movement,” they write, “the SC Minority acted like deer in the headlights. They denied the importance of DSA [Democratic Socialists of America]. They clamped down on questions of organizational affirmative action. They pushed out anyone who threatened the structure they had built.”
There is also an avoidance of a “good guys vs. bad guys” scenario. We are offered a more serious, historical materialist approach: “To their credit the SC Majority, and the majority of the ISO rank-and-file, rejected this abject failure of imagination. This rebellion, however, exposed the extent of the rot. It was not just the SC Minority’s failure. It was an organizational and political failure. All of us were complicit, to one degree or another. Our organization had been meant to keep the ‘seed’ of Marxism safe until the ground was more fertile. But when the time came to plant it, our seed was denatured and mutated.”
But in an already-quoted comment, Saman and Adam make a point that is worth considering more closely. “Our politics were mostly good in the abstract. But in practice we adapted to the hostile territory.” Negative “adaptions” there surely were. Yet it is significant to say that the politics of the ISO (not least of which was the revolutionary Marxism that it represented) could be “mostly good” – and I would suggest this was true not only in the abstract, but also sometimes in actuality. There were good things done, and said, and written. Some of it is durable and can feed something positive into the living socialist movement that is taking shape in our time.
What next?
The paradox presented by Saman and Adam – that efforts to preserve “the seed of Marxism” ended with the result that “our seed was denatured and mutated” – can, they insist, be positively resolved. This is how they put it: “The good news is that half of this problem can be solved by turning into the new socialist movement and embracing it. Only in that collective struggle will our politics come back to life. The other half of the problem is more difficult to solve. It requires opening up a comradely and ongoing discussion about how revolutionaries should organize ourselves today; not just among ISO comrades, but all left-wing socialists.”
Based on the analysis developed above, however, it would be important to add and stress an additional component. There is a need not only for embracing the new socialist movement and opening up discussion on how revolutionaries should organize themselves, but also – and especially – the need to embrace, participate in, help advance, and learn from social struggles and social movements of the working class and all of the oppressed, as they push back against the violence and tyrannies of the status quo. This is not simply an add-on. It is essential. Without that, our Marxism and our revolutionary politics will be abstract, stilted, stunted, “denatured and mutated.”
How should revolutionaries organize themselves today in order to do what must be done?
We are not starting from scratch. There are residual elements from the ISO itself – formally independent entities that it helped bring into being and sustain: the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC), connected with both the immensely valuable publishing operation of Haymarket Books and the yearly Socialism conferences. Former ISO members can connect with these and various other publications and conferences. There are also other socialist organizations, some avoiding the pseudo-Leninist trap of “vanguardism” – and former ISO members are considering options and possibilities. Realities are fluid, and other structures might be developed to facilitate networking and collaboration, as we seek to transform this defeat into a luminous victory.
May 2019
[Paul LeBlanc is a long-time socialist who was a member of the ISO from 2009 until its dissoloution thius year., he is the author of many books, includng Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (1990) and Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine (2014).]
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On Cannon, Shachtman and early US Trotskyism: Bryan Palmer’s talk to the Havana conference on Leon Trotsky-

Posted by admin On May - 28 - 2019 Comments Off on On Cannon, Shachtman and early US Trotskyism: Bryan Palmer’s talk to the Havana conference on Leon Trotsky-


Image: Max Shachtman with James P. Cannon.
What follows are Bryan Palmer’s notes for his presentation to the May 6th-8th, three-day conference in Havana, Cuba, organized to commemorate the centennial of the founding of the Third International, with a discussion of the topic, “Leon Trotsky and Trotskyism”.  The second volume of Palmer’s major biography, James P. Cannon: Revolutionary Continuity and Class-Struggle Politics in the United States, 1890 – 1974, will be published by Brill at the end of 2019, and will be published soon thereafter in soft-cover, by Haymarket Books. It is titled James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 1928-1938.

Remarks to the Trotsky Conference, Havana
Thanks to Frank, the Trotsky Museum of Mexico, and other sponsors and organizers of this historical conference. Thanks to all present for coming, sharing ideas, differences, perspectives, and allowing us all – who share a common commitment to the heritage of revolutionary Trotskyism – to express our solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and defend the accomplishments and achievements of this society, forged against US imperialism, and threatened today by the forces of capitalist aggression.
My talk, upon which I will try to impose a Bolshevik discipline, is different than what is titled in various programs. I won’t be talking about Trotskyism in North America, too broad a subject to broach. I will address two critically important leaders of the US Trotskyist movement, Max Shachtman and James P. Cannon, and the emergence of Trotskyism in the US in the 1930s. These necessarily truncated comments might be called, “Theses on Cannon & Shachtman: United States Trotskyism, 1928-1938.” And they recall an earlier set of theses, one of which declared, ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it.’
I start by tilting my sails against the winds of conventional wisdom. Shachtman is actually more written about than Cannon, and he is presented in the standard accounts in more sympathetic ways. Shachtman, who is often seen as representative of the immigrant strand of revolutionary socialism in the US, is usually presented as cosmopolitan, multilingual, sophisticated, internationalist, and Trotsky’s collaborator and translator.
Cannon, representative of the native born, English-speaking revolutionary, is presented as more parochial, uninterested in international questions, and somewhat wooden and mechanical in his translation of revolutionary politics into the United States context.
Over the course of the 1930s these two figures, more than any others, charted the course of American Trotskyism. But the path followed, and their relations with one another were contested and conflictual, and the actualities of their contributions were different than are often depicted in a mythologizing of Shachtman’s sophistication and superiority.
Cannon was in fact the experienced leader inside the Communist Party, which he helped to found in 1919-1921. Shachtman, along with Martin Abern, Albert Glotzer, Maurice Spector, and others were youthful recruits to Cannon’s eventual break from Stalinism and his embrace of Trotskyism in 1928, which eventually resulted in expulsion from the CP.
But from the moment that these figures, along with Rose Karsner, Cannon’s partner, formed the American Trotskyist movement and the Communist League of America, Cannon and Shachtman clashed.
Shachtman led a personalized assault on Cannon in the difficult days of the early Depression, chastising Cannon’s supposed laziness, his lack of theoretical sophistication, and his ignorance of international issues as they related to the struggle to forge a Trotskyist movement. Shachtman and Glotzer, fluent in European languages, met with Trotsky in Europe early in the 1930s. Cannon did not, and was forced to test Trotsky on a number of occasions in written communications and challenges that were structured so as to ascertain that Trotsky would not behave towards the American section of his movement in the same way that the Stalinist Comintern had behaved.
This accelerated an almost Freudian rift between Shachtman, Glotzer, Spector, with Cannon, a father figure, who now seemed displaced by a youthful cohort who demanded their place at the leadership table. The public denunciation of Cannon was vicious, and among Shachtman and his social and political network the sense that Cannon as a senior figure in the movement had three children to support and difficult material and personal circumstances to navigate was non existent. That Rose Karsner suffered what can only be construed as personal breakdown after the expulsion from the CP only worsened the situation.
Had the critique of Cannon, which had some basis, been entirely valid and fair-minded, it would have been devastating. It was not. And ultimately what was a personal assault on Cannon’s regime merged with a politics of political error and lackadaisical organizational activity that Trotsky identified with Shachtman, whom he criticized for forming political alliances in Europe on the basis of “chumminess” rather than political principles, for failing to follow through on basic organizational assignments because they might have ruffled some European feathers, and for acclimatizing to and papering over politically retrograde activities because of personal relations.
This was the beginning of Trotsky’s understanding that Cannon, who had flaws, was the more stable political element in the American movement, a steeled revolutionary with experience who could be trusted, whereas Shachtman was mercurial, too preoccupied with questions of a literary or journalistic nature, and simply incapable of holding to the necessarily firm politics of revolutionary principle.
The personal and political estrangement of Cannon and Shachtman in 1930-1933 was quite ugly and nasty, but it showed signs of moderating in 1933-1934.
There were three reasons for Cannon and Shachtman coming together: 1) NY hotel strike of 1933  brought Cannon and Shachtman closer, with Cannon especially playing a revived role in public agitation that ended in the two Trotskyists opposing B.J. Fields’ opportunistic and ultimately failed leadership of the strike; 2) the involvement of both figures in the highly successful Minneapolis teamsters strikes of 1934, led by Cannon allies like the Dunne brothers and Carl Skoglund; and 3) the anti-fascist campaign against developments in Germany and the need to prepare for war, although there continued to be factional bumps along this road. Ultimately, however, the anti-fascist struggle led Trotsky, as well as Cannon and Shachtman, to conclude that it was time to take Trotskyism out of the shadows of being merely an Opposition to the Comintern, forging a truly independent revolutionary organization and indeed a new Fourth International.
This led to Cannon and Shachtman’s alliance over fusion with the Musteites in the American Workers Party, which Cannon considered a variant of the French Turn, and the actual French Turn in America, entry into the US Socialist Party of Norman Thomas. Cannon and Shachtman found themselves together in opposing the sectarian opposition of Hugo Oehler, and Shachtman seemed to have broken from his young allies, Glotzer, Abern, and Spector, all of whom continued to harbour deeply personal resentments of Cannon and his leadership of the American Trotskyist movement.
But in the Socialist Party entry, Cannon and Shachtman again found themselves at loggerheads. Shachtman thought entry into the SP should be long-term, that the Trotskyists could ultimately take over the organization, and that the path to this end was negotiations with the SP’s seemingly left wing, known as the Militants and later the Clarityites.
Cannon ended up with an entirely different orientation, one supported by Trotsky.  Shachtman and the entire NY leadership of the Trotskyist movement, which included James Burnham, Cannon’s long-time supporter Arne Swabeck, Glotzer, Spector, youth leader Joe Carter, and to a limited extent Abern, were content to engage in endless negotiations with the so- called NY SP militants.
Cannon opted for a different course. He travelled the country, building the SP, especially in California, where he settled, and where he came, according to SP sources, perilously close to taking over the state Socialist Party. With SP left wing militant, Glen Trimble, Cannon started an agitational paper, the LABOR ACTION. He built relations with a seamen’s union figurehead, Harry Lundenberg, and influenced a successful mass struggle of seamen in a lengthy 99-day strike that paralyzed west-coast ports and pitted militant direct-action seamen against the capitulationist sensibilities of the Harry Bridges/Stalinist led longshore union. Cannon won over provincial militants in Ohio, such as the seasoned Musteite, Ted Selender, and consolidated his ongoing relations with the revolutionary leadership of the Minneapolis Teamsters, who were now central figures in the Socialist Party. He campaigned successfully to free Tom Mooney and other political prisoners, and while he and Shachtman differed greatly on what to do in the SP, they collaborated on the defence of Trotsky through organizing the Dewey Commission, a campaign in which Shachtman and New York-based Trotskyist comrades like George Novack, undoubtedly played the preeminent roles.
Throughout all of this Cannon was opposing both the Stalinists and the Socialist Party hierarchy, whether they were right wing or ostensibly left leaning. This was especially evident in his critique of the Popular Front and how it licenced and abetted the murderous assault on the revolutionary forces fighting in Spain.
All of this embarrassed the SP leadership, who grew increasingly agitated in their opposition to Cannon and the Trotskyists. As Cannon and Trotsky knew would happen, eventually the Socialist Party expelled the Trotskyists in 1937. Shachtman and Burnham resisted recognizing this until the very end.
But as the expulsion happened, hundreds of new recruits were drawn to Trotskyism, and the foundation was laid for establishing the Socialist Workers Party in 1938. Trotsky then turned to Cannon, first and foremost, to build the groundwork for establishing the Fourth International in the summer of that year. Yes, Shachtman would chair the actual meeting in France where the Fourth Internatinal was formed, but Trotsky explicitly tasked Cannon with meeting with the rancorous and divided British sections of his followers, to mould them into one entity and win over CLR James. Shachtman played a role in these international developments because of his linguistic abilities, but it was Cannon Trotsky trusted.
At this point in 1938, Shachtman and Cannon were as one in their views that Russia was a workers’ state, and only Burnham and Carter were dissenting. Within months another factional rift was in the making, in which Shachtman would renounce the view that Russia was a workers’ state, however Stalinistically degenerate. This would prove a slippery slope down which he would slide as he made his exit from revolutionary Trotskyism, breaking decisively from Cannon in the 1939-1940 disagreement within the SWP over the nature of the Soviet Union.
Cannon, in contrast, proved to be the red continuity that evolved from the revolutionary syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World to the founding of the Communist Party in 1921 to the break from Stalinism in 1928 to the founding of the Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International in 1938. Thereafter, whatever errors he may have committed, it was Cannon not Shachtman, who embodied revolutionary internationalism.
In the regroupment of the revolutionary left that is necessary at the current conjuncture, we will need and rely on a diversity of talents. Shachtman brought much to the making of the revolutionary Trotskyist left, but he contributed also a great deal of a negative kind. A great irony is how kind history has been to Shachtman, and how harsh it has been on Cannon, routinely dismissed as a limited theoretical mind with a Zinoviev appetite for bureaucracy. Yet it was Cannon, more than any other figure in the United States Trotskyist movement who built and sustained a revolutionary organization and remained firm in his programmatic principles, which were anything but parochial. In a reconstituted revolutionary left, we will need Cannon’s resolve, his principle, his steadfast adherence to a politics of class struggle, and his refusal of the clique politics and combinations that so often sadly animated Shachtman.
As Trotsky once said. “Those who cannot defend old positions will never conquer new ones.” Cannon stayed such a course of revolutionary resolve, holding to old positions of programmatic principle while learning new lessons of how to function as a revolutionary.
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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.

Leon Trotsky and cultural revolution-Doug Enaa Greene

Posted by admin On May - 16 - 2019 Comments Off on Leon Trotsky and cultural revolution-Doug Enaa Greene

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Cosmonaut — The argument that a “cultural revolution” is a necessary part of a socialist revolution is generally associated with Mao Zedong and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) that he initiated in China. However, Leon Trotsky, in a vastly different way than Mao, stated that Russia needed a cultural revolution. According to Trotsky, a cultural revolution was needed along with industrialization to construct socialism. Trotsky’s industrialization plan for Russia would increase the social weight of the proletariat. A cultural revolution would raise the masses’ cultural level by eradicating mass illiteracy and superstition and change their habits and customs, which would make the working class fit to rule society.

The Heritage of Underdevelopment
According to Marx, socialism would develop first in industrialized capitalist countries with their vast productive powers and rich cultural heritage that the working class would use to build a new order. Contrary to Marx, the Bolshevik Revolution occurred in a backward country, which complicated matters in regards to cultural transformation. Although the major urban centers were “islands of capitalism” with a high concentration of workers in modern factories, large portions of the countryside were just emerging from feudalism. As the Bolsheviks recognized, Russia did not possess the material and cultural conditions needed to overcome capitalism on its own. Both Lenin and Trotsky believed that one of the tasks of the new Soviet republic was to begin the process of creating them. However, the low levels of culture, technical skill, etc., for most of the population along with the isolation of the revolution meant that options were limited.
For Lenin, questions of culture and ideology were intimately connected with the goals of communism – how to overcome the legacy of capitalism and class society. According to Georg Lukács, Lenin’s cultural strategy had three goals:
To abolish the difference between village and city, to abolish the difference between physical and intellectual labour, and to restore the meaningfulness and autonomous nature of labour. Here, too, economic construction and cultural revolution appear inseparable. The electrification of the village, the mechanisation of agricultural production, and such like, directly serve purely economic goals: increased production. However, this increase is not achievable by means other than continuously raising the cultural level of the village; so, too, it requires that agricultural production draw ever closer to the principles of planned factory-production, to principles supported by the latest achievements of science, which master nature ever more thoroughly, and which demand of the labour-force scientific capabilities.[1]
Lenin’s vision, shared by Trotsky, was that the working class had to not only master the achievements and culture of bourgeois society but overcome their limitations in the construction of socialism. The development of a socialist planned economy coincided with not only economic modernization, but also cultural transformation. Modernization and the increase of productive forces were not seen as ends in themselves – this would merely reinforce the inequalities of capitalism – but were part of an all-around transformation of the conditions of life.

Trotsky and the Proletkult
The Russian Revolution not only brought the working class power, but unleashed great artistic and cultural creativity. Among the changes there were assaults on the traditional family, divorce was made easy, women expanded their horizons, social privilege was rejected, new laws put national equality in place of Great Russian chauvinism (anti-Semitism was outlawed). There was social experimentation in everything from factory organization to education. The Revolution saw the flowering of the artistic avant-garde, as can be seen in the symbolic image of the “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” or the emblem of the hammer and sickle that are powerful representations to convey the values of the revolutionary cause to communists, artists, and workers. Lastly, there was the Proletkult, a movement of Bolshevik intellectuals, artists and workers inspired by the ideas Alexander Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky, who rejected class culture and wanted to create a culture, science, and art based on the values of internationalism, materialism, and atheism. A new proletarian culture, stripped of bourgeois influences, would be the basis of modern socialist society.

Lenin did not think very highly of the Proletkult movement, stating:
Proletarian culture is not something that suddenly springs from nobody knows where, and is not invented by people who set up as specialists in proletarian culture. Proletarian culture is the regular development of those stores of knowledge which mankind has worked out for itself under the yoke of capitalist society, of feudal society, of bureaucratic society.[2]

Lenin’s negative view of the Proletkult movement was shared by Trotsky, who argued that
It is fundamentally incorrect to contrast bourgeois culture and bourgeois art with proletarian culture and proletarian art. The latter will never exist, because the proletarian regime is temporary and transient. The historic significance and the moral grandeur of the proletarian revolution consist in the fact that it is laying the foundations of a culture which is above classes and which will be the first culture that is truly human.[3]

According to Trotsky, every class creates its own art and culture, but bourgeois culture developed in a protracted period of several centuries before taking power, while the proletariat did not develop its own culture before the revolution. Furthermore, a proletarian dictatorship was transitory (lasting years or decades) and during that time, the attention of the working class would mainly be absorbed in fierce political struggles. There would be no development of a distinctive proletarian culture, since the dictatorship of the proletariat leads to the end of class distinctions and the creation of a universal human culture. Considering the backwardness of the Russian proletariat in regards to culture, Trotsky said they needed to critically appropriate, absorb and assimilate the old culture. According to Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky said the working class
ought to view the cultural legacy dialectically and see its historically formed contradictions. The achievements of civilization had so far served a double purpose: they had assisted man in gaining knowledge and control of nature and in developing his own capacities; but they had also served to perpetuate society’s division into classes and man’s exploitation by man. Consequently, some elements of the heritage were of universal significance and validity while others were bound up with obsolete or obsolescent social systems. The communist approach to the cultural legacy should therefore be selective.[4]
Cover of Furnace, an official organ of Proletkult, designed by Aleksandr Zugrin

Economic Development and Cultural Revolution
Trotsky’s conception of a cultural revolution involved the proletariat eliminating illiteracy, superstition and raising their cultural level, so they would be fit to rule. However, Russian backwardness meant that different and contradictory conceptions of the world coexisted together among the people, even among communists:
A man is a sound communist devoted to the cause, but women are for him just “females,” not to be taken seriously in any way. Or it happens that an otherwise reliable communist, when discussing nationalistic matters, starts talking hopelessly reactionary stuff. To account for that we must remember that different parts of the human consciousness do not change and develop simultaneously and on parallel lines. There is a certain economy in the process. Human psychology is very conservative by nature, and the change due to the demands and the push of life affects in the first place those parts of the mind which are directly concerned in the case.[5]

A resolute struggle was needed to raise the cultural level of the proletariat and peasantry so they wouldn’t reproduce systems of oppression and domination under a socialist veneer. The battle against backward ideas and attitudes was not simply a struggle for ideas, habits, and attitudes needed to be connected with uprooting the material conditions that engendered them.

Socialism would overcome those conditions by creating modern industry, improving the standard of living and increasing the weight of the proletariat in Soviet society: “The decisive factor in appraising the movement of our country forward along the road of socialist reconstruction, must be the growth of our productive forces and the dominance of the socialist elements over the capitalist—together with an improvement of all the conditions of existence of the working class.”[6] At the same time, the bureaucracy who ruled had to be combated and the workers needed to be in firm control of the Soviets, trade unions and the Party. Although Trotsky did not believe that the USSR would be secure until the worldwide victory of socialism, they had a task to hold out until they could receive aid from revolutions abroad. Ultimately, the worldwide victory of socialism, the development of industry and culture would free the proletariat from the shackles of feudalism, make them fit to rule.
Trotsky’s ideas on cultural revolution and developing industry formed a single integrated strategic vision:
even the slightest successes in the sphere of morals, by raising the cultural level of the working man and woman, enhance our capacity for rationalizing production, and promoting socialist accumulation. This again gives us the possibility of making fresh conquests in the sphere of morals. Thus a dialectical dependence exists between the two spheres.[7]

A cultural revolution could not be delayed until the productive forces were already developed but needed to be done simultaneously, otherwise, old customs, relations, habits of Russian backwardness would engulf the revolution.

Soviet underdevelopment meant the bureaucratization of the party and state were real and pressing problems. There was a tendency among the bureaucracy to protect its monopoly to information from the working class. As Marx said, the bureaucracy “is a hierarchy of knowledge.”[8] The Soviet bureaucrats did not want the masses involved in the life of the country:
What is the use, they say, of wasting time in discussions? Let the authorities start running communal kitchens, creches, laundries, hostels, etc. Bureaucratic dullards usually add (or rather imply, or say in whispers—they prefer that to open speech): “It is all words, and nothing more.” The bureaucrat hopes…that when we get rich, we shall, without further words, present the proletariat with cultured conditions of life as with a sort of birthday gift. No need, say such critics, to carry on propaganda for socialist conditions among the masses—the process of labour itself creates “a sense of socialness.”[9]

Trotsky said this problem would not be solved by replacing the “bad” bureaucrats with “good” ones, but the working class taking charge in the construction of socialism.
Trotsky’s approach to the bureaucracy was guided by several considerations:
1) The party and state could not possibly know everything. Bureaucrats tend to be inert and distrust initiative, but socialism requires the masses taking conscious leadership to solve the problems of economic development and cultural change.
2) Socialist consciousness will not emerge in a spontaneous way. Although the “state can organize conditions of life down to the last cell of the community,” but unless the workers themselves were involved in the process, then “no serious and radical changes can possibly be achieved in economic conditions and home life.”[10] Whereas the previous generation of workers learned communism through class struggle and revolution, the next generation will learn “in the elements of construction, the elements of the construction of everyday life. The formulas of our program are, in principle, true. But we must continually prove them, renew them, make them concrete in living experience, and spread them in a wider sphere.”[11] While the state will play a major role in constructing socialism, the masses had to be the guiding force: “The proletarian state is the structural timber, not the structure itself. The importance of a revolutionary government in a period of transition is immeasurable… It does not mean that all work of building will be performed by the state.”[12]
3) The course of socialist development meant that change could not from enlightened bureaucrats, but through coordination of local needs within an overall plan. Ultimately, socialism requires revolutionary practice by the working class and not administration by bureaucrats.
Although the party needed to promote their own cultural workers (artists, writers, etc), this did not mean that the party had a monopoly on knowledge. A cultural revolution needed pluralism and competing currents of artistic and literary schools – save for those who were openly and unambiguously counterrevolutionary. While the party should provide guidance in the realm of culture, it should not enforce a state-led cultural revolution. According to Trotsky: “The state is an organ of coercion and for Marxists in positions of power these may be a temptation to simplify cultural and educational work among the masses by using the approach of ‘Here is the truth – down on your knees to it !”[13]

Trotsky rejected the claims of the Proletkult that Marxism was a universal system which provided a master key for every problem. According to him,
The Marxian method affords an opportunity to estimate the development of the new art, to trace all its sources, to help the most progressive tendencies by a critical illumination of the road, but it does not do more than that. Art must make its own way and by its own means. The Marxian methods are not the same as the artistic. …The domain of art is not one in which the Party is called upon to command. It can and must protect and help it, but it can only lead it indirectly….And at any rate, the Party cannot and will not take the position of a literary circle which is struggling and merely competing with other literary circles.[14]

Trotsky’s plan for a cultural revolution and economic development was to realize the communist dream where “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”[15] A communist society would mean a transformation in the arts where “technique will become a more powerful inspiration for artistic work, and later on the contradiction itself between technique and nature will be solved in a higher synthesis.” Art and culture would be cleansed of the inequities of class society and flourish under communism. People would finally be free to develop their capabilities to the fullest. In a lyrical passage, Trotsky described the untold possibilities of cultural development under communism:
It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psychophysical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts—literature, drama, painting, music, and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.[16]
Construction on White (Robot), by Aleksandr Rodchenko 1920

Trotsky and Mao
At the 1942 Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, Mao rejected Trotsky’s approach to culture as one of “dualism” or “pluralism” which confined the party’s leadership extended to “politics,” while art remained “bourgeois” (a mischaracterization of Trotsky’s position):
Party work in literature and art occupies a definite and assigned position in Party revolutionary work as a whole and is subordinated to the revolutionary tasks set by the Party in a given revolutionary period. Opposition to this arrangement is certain to lead to dualism or pluralism, and in essence amounts to “politics–Marxist, art—bourgeois”…[17]

For Mao, art and culture needed to be subordinate to the requirements of politics, since they
are part of the whole revolutionary cause, they are cogs and wheels in it, and though in comparison with certain other and more important parts they may be less significant and less urgent and may occupy a secondary position, nevertheless, they are indispensable cogs and wheels in the whole machine, an indispensable part of the entire revolutionary cause. If we had no literature and art even in the broadest and most ordinary sense, we could not carry on the revolutionary movement and win victory. Failure to recognize this is wrong. Furthermore, when we say that literature and art are subordinate to politics, we mean class politics, the politics of the masses, not the politics of a few so-called statesmen.[18]

While art and culture had previously served the bourgeoisie, now Mao said both would serve the proletariat.
Since art and culture were stamped by class and politics, reactionary ideas needed to be struggled against. Like Trotsky, Mao does not believe the working class should reject art from previous epochs, stating
We should take over the rich legacy and the good traditions in literature and art that have been handed down from past ages in China and foreign countries, but the aim must still be to serve the masses of the people. Nor do we refuse to utilize the literary and artistic forms of the past, but in our hands these old forms, remoulded and infused with new content, also become something revolutionary in the service of the people.[19]

It was the task of revolutionary artists, cultural workers, and intellectuals to take the stand of the working class and the masses, not those of the elite. Art had to be produced for the masses and taken up by them as a weapon of struggle. In order for writers and artists to accomplish this, their primary task was to know the people (their daily lives, “common sense,” feelings, struggles, etc) and develop the cultural forms created by the people and tease out the elements of “good sense.” Art and culture must reflect the problems and aspirations of ordinary people and not the aspirations of the old ruling classes. Mao’s conception of culture was successfully able to mobilize millions to take the fight against the Japanese and the People’s Liberation.

There was a potential for abuse in Mao’s conception of culture, which can mean cultural control by the party – who could determine what was or was not revolutionary. In contrast, Trotsky granted a greater scope for culture outside of the control of the party (save for openly counterrevolutionary voices).

Mao’s theory behind the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was that a series of cultural revolutions were necessary to “continue the revolution” since bourgeois survivals remained in both the economy and the superstructure that conflicted with new political, cultural and ideological ideas. According to Mao, the superstructure did not automatically change in response to developments in the base, rather there was a lag as the old culture lingered. A conscious effort is needed through mass campaigns and action. If a conscious effort is made to change the superstructure, this would in turn spur development of the economic base as encapsulated in the slogan “grasp revolution, promote production.”

Since the People’s Republic was a transitional society, the birthmarks of capitalism continued to exist and were reproduced – such as the law of value, disparities in decision-making, inequality, access to resources, education, culture, and the persistence of patriarchy which encouraged a breach between the party and the masses. Mao feared that these tendencies would lead to the growth of capitalist restorationist elements within both the party and state.

The Cultural Revolution rejected the premise of developing the productive forces and recognized that the class struggle continued under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Only the continuing revolutionizing of the productive relations would increase the control of the masses in society, overcoming capitalist economic relations and the ideological and political relations which reproduce them, in order to continue on the socialist road.
The Cultural Revolution was launched in May 1966 a call to the masses, inside and outside of the party, to overthrow the “capitalist roaders” in the party and state, and root out old ideas and culture:
Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds and endeavour to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do the exact opposite: it must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie in the ideological field and use the new ideas, culture, customs and habits of the proletariat to change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present, our objective is to struggle against and overthrow those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic “authorities” and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art and all other parts of the superstructure not in correspondence with the socialist economic base, so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.[20]

The Maoist vision of Cultural Revolution was voluntaristic and idealistic with an under-estimation of the weight of economic factors. While socialists need to reject economism, this doesn’t mean socialism can be built by political will regardless of unfavorable conditions. The ultimate criteria for determining the capitalist or socialist character of a society was whether or not it followed the correct political line (in this case, Mao Zedong Thought). This can lead to declaring that the class character of the party and socialism have little to do with the working class, but that socialism is solely determined solely by ideology and political line.

The Soviet Cultural Front
Although Trotsky was ousted from power, at beginning of the Five Year Plans, the USSR did embark on its own cultural revolution. The Soviet cultural revolution opened vast avenues of educational and cultural mobility for the working class throughout society. According to the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, the purpose of the cultural revolution was “both asserting party control over cultural life and opening up the administrative and professional elite to a new cohort of young Communists and workers.”[21] Although the Soviets had a long-standing policy of placing workers into administrative positions, this was done on an unprecedented scale during the cultural revolution. According to Fitzpatrick: “Of the 861,000 persons classified as ‘leading cadres and specialists’ in the Soviet Union at the end of 1933, over 140,000- more than one in six had been blue-collar workers only five years earlier. But this was only the tip of the iceberg. The total number of workers moving into white-collar jobs during the First Five-Year Plan was probably at least one and a half million.”[22]  Furthermore, the numbers of workers receiving higher education swelled: “About 150,000 workers and Communists entered higher education during the First Five-Year Plan, most of them studying engineering since technical expertise rather than Marxist social science was now regarded as the best qualification for leadership in an industrializing society.”[23] These newly educated workers and administrators rejected the claims of bourgeois experts to leadership in production, leading them to view some elements in the party “as protectors of the bourgeois intelligentsia, over-reliant on the advice of non-party experts, complacent about the influence of experts and former Tsarist officials within the government bureaucracy, and prone to infection by ‘rotten liberalism’ and bourgeois values.”[24] The Soviet cultural revolution (whatever its limitations) struggled against bourgeois values, intellectuals, culture, elitism and bureaucracy in all aspects of society. The cultural revolution fired the imaginations of young party members and workers who were encouraged to attack any manifestation of liberalism or capitalism, “but at the same time they were instinctively hostile to most existing authorities and institutions, which they suspected of bureaucratic and ‘objectively counter-revolutionary’ tendencies.”[25] Many of the cultural revolution’s initiatives were spontaneous and outside of party control, but their ideas “were also taken seriously, receiving wide publicity and also, in many cases, substantial funding from various government agencies and other official bodies.”[26]
Despite the great advancements in education and upward mobility for the Soviet working class during the 1930s, the same period also saw the growth of the bureaucracy and a “cult of personality” surrounding Stalin. In the USSR, the traditions of Marxism mixed uneasily with those of Tsarism and Greek Orthodoxy. As time passed, the structure of the Communist Party and society more and more resembled the spirit of the Orthodox Church with its dogmas, orthodoxy, heresies, and inquisitions (most grossly on display during the Purge Trials). Furthermore, the social weight of the peasantry and backwardness took their revenge as beliefs in “primitive magic” found expression in the party and state. According to Deutscher, primitive magic was common amongst the peasantry and “expressed man’s helplessness amid the forces of nature which he had not yet learned to control; and that, on the whole, modern technology and organization are its deadliest enemies. On the technological level of the wooden plough primitive magic flourishes.”[27] Initially, the Bolsheviks spoke a language of reason to the peasantry, but as the revolution’s emancipatory energies were exhausted, the party “lost the sense of its own elevation above its native environment, once it had become aware that it could only fall back on that environment and dig itself in, it began to descend to the level of primitive magic, and to appeal to the people in the language of that magic.”[28] Nothing exemplifies the Soviet embrace of primitive magic more than the cult of personality surrounding Stalin, who was seen as the all-knowing and all-wise leader. In the later Stalin years, rampant chauvinism was fostered in the USSR “to convince the Soviet people that the Russians, and the Russians alone, had been the initiators of all the epoch-making ideas and of all the modern technical discoveries…[which] goes back to that remote epoch when the tribe cultivated a belief in its own mysterious powers which set it apart from and above all other tribes.”[29]
By the time of the Great Purges, the sheer weight of Russian backwardness and isolation took their toll as the cultural revolution and emancipatory initiatives were rolled back. In their place, the Soviets reasserted old moral and cultural values, a need for order, authority and social hierarchy, promotion of the traditional family and increasingly, Russian nationalism. The USSR shed its iconoclasm in the cultural sphere and promoted “Socialist Realism” which glorified the achievements of the Soviet state and society. According to the Marxist cultural critic Ernest Fischer, Socialist Realism was a “tendency to control the arts, to administer and manipulate them, to drive out the spirit of criticism and free imagination, and to transform artists into officials, into illustrators of resolutions.”[30] Trotsky viewed Socialist Realism as a symptom of Thermidorian decline, disillusionment, and a move towards conservative uniformity:
The style of present-day official Soviet painting is called “socialist realism.” The name itself has evidently been invented by some high functionary in the department of the arts. This “realism” consists in the imitation of provincial daguerreotypes of the third quarter of the last century; the “socialist” character apparently consists in representing, in the manner of pretentious photography, events which never took place. It is impossible to read Soviet verse and prose without physical disgust, mixed with horror, or to look at reproductions of paintings and sculpture in which functionaries armed with pens, brushes, and scissors, under the supervision of functionaries armed with Mausers, glorify the “great” and “brilliant” leaders, actually devoid of the least spark of genius or greatness. The art of the Stalinist period will remain as the frankest expression of the profound decline of the proletarian revolution.[31]


Trotsky’s vision of a cultural revolution, just like that of industrialization, was connected with questions of working-class emancipation and socialism. Economic development would increase the proletariat’s social weight in society. The proletariat would need to assert their own interests by controlling both the party and state (meaning both had to be democratized). To enable the working class to rule, the USSR had to build a modern society with education, social provisions, and raise the standard of living. Therefore, a cultural revolution was necessary to raise the spiritual and cultural level of the working class so they could consciously create socialism.
Georg Lukács, “Literature and Democracy,” in The Culture of People’s Democracy: Hungarian Essays on Literature, Art, and Democratic Transition, 1945–1948, ed. Tyrus Miller (Boston: Brill, 2013), 35.
Quoted in Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 17.
Ibid, 32-33.
Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, Trotsky 1921-1929 (New York: Verso Books, 2003b), 142.
Leon Trotsky, “The Struggle for Cultured Speech,” in Problems of Everyday Life(New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 54.
Leon Trotsky, “The Platform of the Opposition: The Party Crisis and How to Overcome It,” in The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1980), 311.
“Habit and Custom,” in Trotsky 1973, 30.
“Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law,” Marx and Engels Collected Works 3 (London: Lawrence & Wishart), 46.
“Against Bureaucracy, Progressive and Unprogressive,” in Trotsky 1973, 57.
Ibid. 61.
“How to Begin,” in Trotsky 1973, 70.
Ibid. 6. This analysis of Trotsky on culture and cultural revolution is indebted to chapter 6 of Kunal Chattopadhyay, The Marxism of Leon Trotsky (electronic book in my possession).
“Leninism and Workers’ Clubs,” in Trotsky 1973, 289.
Trotsky 2005, 179.
Ibid, 205.
Ibid, 207.
Mao Tse-tung, “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” in Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung Volume 3 (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1967), 86.
Ibid, 76.
“Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/peking-review/1966/PR1966-33g.htm
Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 141
Ibid, 141.
Ibid. 144-145.
Ibid, 142.
Ibid. 143. See also Sheila Fitzpatrick, ed., Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1928-1931 (London: Indiana University Press, 1978).
Isaac Deutscher, Russia After Stalin (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953), 48-49.
Ibid, 49
Ibid, 52.
Ernst Fischer, Art Against Ideology (New York: Penguin Press, 1969), 173.
Leon Trotsky, “Art and Politics in Our Epoch,” Marxists Internet Archive.https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/06/artpol.htm
Doug Enaa Greene Trotsky

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The circumstances of the speech were dramatic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Experiencing Cuban realities


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuba’s first international academic meeting on Trotsky


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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A third panel was postponed to the following day.

Day 2


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3


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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3 continued: Building revolutionary struggles in the Americas


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding reflections


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by admin On May - 3 - 2019 Comments Off on Timir Basu on labor in India-interviewed by Farooque Chowdhury


‘Unions must provide political education or labor will find itself more powerless than ever before’—Timir Basu on labor in India

Posted Apr 30, 2019 by Farooque Chowdhury and Timir Basu
Topics: Labor , StrategyPlaces: India
Labor around the world is facing a hostile situation to the extent and intensity unprecedented in labor’s history. At the same time, labor in the Global South and Global North is theoretically, organizationally and politically unarmed. In this interview conducted in April 2019 by Farooque Chowdhury, Timir Basu focuses on labor in India, a large economy in the Global South. Basu, once a revolutionary who organized among the poor peasantry, spent years in prison, during which time he focused on organizing prison labor. He has been an editor of Frontier, the radical weekly published out of Kolkata, ever since.

Farooque Chowdhury: You were actively involved with organizing the poor peasantry along revolutionary line. That was days of organizing armed struggle, years ago. Then, after getting out of prison, you actively got involved with organizing unions. You were simultaneously writing on labor and unions/labor movement in two famous weeklies—Economic and Political Weekly and Frontier. Later, over the years, as editor of Frontier, you keenly observe the labor and labor movement in India. What’s the present condition of (a) the labor, and (b) the labor movement in this south Asian country?

Timir Basu: Labor has been on the defensive everywhere since the 1990s, more precisely since the beginning of ruthless aggression of neo-liberalism. And, the South Asian region is no exception.

As for India, labor here is doubly disadvantaged because of a backward manufacturing process inherited from the British colonial rulers. Indian big business houses never tried to modernize their industry despite tremendous advance in technological up-gradation in manufacturing in Europe and America. Indian business tycoons are industrialists with feudal mindset. Also, they never tried to explore and expand market beyond a certain point. Unlike the Chinese capitalists who are latecomer in the race, they remained satisfied with captive market. They were always apprehensive of losing control over their family business empires in case of expansion. But with rapid march of globalization, technological up-gradation became the buzzword in new corporate culture dominated by Ambanis and Adanis, in place of old Tatas and Birlas. They began to automate their production lines with the sole purpose of cutting labor cost, not the improvement in quality of products. This is the main reason why Indian goods are not competitive in international market despite the advantage of cheap labor. Indian economy is not immune to global recession. Despite pompous claim of high growth rate and fairy tale of GDP, joblessness remains the perennial headache of all governments irrespective of color. Barring services sector the much-touted organized sector has been witnessing systematic killing of jobs.

Trade Union movement in general even in the organized sector finds it increasingly difficult to arrest the falling membership and boost the sagging morale of workers who are in constant threat of losing job. They work under the state of fear-psychosis, always encountering uncertainty and insecurity. The old way of placing charter of demands with major thrust on wage revision and compensatory allowance in proportion to rise or fall in consumer price index no longer works. Labor offensive in the form of strike in isolation here and there, quite often fails due to lack of solidarity support.

The phenomenal growth of services sector has created a new generation of employees who are essentially footloose, and May Day has very little meaning to them unless they are politically motivated. They are not interested in the past but what they fail to grasp is they cannot protect their future without knowing their past. Labor in the era of digital economy looks more fragmented and the “cybertariat” is yet to stand on its own feet.

What’s the major hindrance—theoretically or politically or organizationally or assault by capital/opponent classes—the labor movement in India is facing now?

For the decline of labor movement what is theoretically valid for workers in the West is equally valid for workers in India. The collapse of Soviet Russia gave employers, more precisely corporate employers, extra leverage to curb their bargaining power. The model of’ socialist societies’ where workers used to enjoy better living standards and social security was no longer there. Socialism itself became a dirty word. The post-Soviet situation also helped right-wing forces organize trade unions under their banner of reactionary and backward ideology. Reversal in China gave them extra teeth to coerce labor and brakes on trade union rights.

Tragically, most workers in the organized sector came under the sway of political right while the left continued to wander in ideological wilderness. In truth, they are still in search of an appropriate strategy in the changed context. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) controlled Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) and [Indian National] Congress controlled INTUC together control most organized membership of unions and don’t allow workers to go on strike even in case of gross violation of workers’ rights.

Which class dominates the labor movement in India?

The middle class as a whole dominates Indian labor movement. It doesn’t matter whether unions are left controlled or rightist led, leadership always comes with middle class background. Communist and socialist outfits deploy whole-timers to organize trade unions. Rightwing forces too do the same. This tradition has been continuing since beginning of trade union movement in the 1920s. For economically sound big unions, trade union bureaucracy is a nightmare to ordinary workers. The trade union bureaucracy is part of the management now. In the name of maintaining industrial peace, this leadership sometimes openly works against the interests of workers. It’s not that leaders from the working community are rare. But in course of time, they too acquire the status of middle class. Once P C Joshi, the secretary of undivided Communist Party of India, made a unique observation—“workers being promoted to leadership become babus”, the well-off Indian middle class. Declassed in reverse order!

The system of “recognized unions” is a nice device to corrupt TU leaders who do nothing in workplace, but provide consultancy to management. Their sole job is to keep vigil on aggrieved workers on behalf of management and pacify workers at the time of unrest.

Divisive/sectarian politics by factions of the dominating capital is a crucial issue in this big economy. This divisive/sectarian politics of the dominating capital produces an equal and opposite reaction—concentrating on issues in the way, which is also essentially divisive/sectarian, and increasingly confining into another form of divisive/sectarian slogans. Both of these are acting as a tool in the hands of the dominating capital, and harming unity of the working classes, the wage-slaves, the exploited. Do you find slogans—program/demand/movement—from the labor that stand against all forms and colors of divisive/sectarian politics irrespective of appearance and sound, and stand on class line?

It is the basic weakness of labor movement in India that even the far-left, not to speak of official left, does raise the question of class. Nor do they educate wage laborers on class line. Frankly speaking, they consciously keep trade unions free from politics. As a result, it is no problem for capital to divide workers by manipulating divisive and sectarian issues through their paid agents when it is necessary. When the ruling parties spread war hysteria, no protest emerges from workers’ platform as if workers are not affected by such propaganda.

In India one major problem affecting workers and workplaces is caste. Despite toiling for decades side by side in an establishment workers remain vulnerable to caste and religious prejudices. They remain immune to progressive ideas—no change in their outlook. They come with prejudice and they go back with prejudice. Management encourages prejudice and obnoxious religious practice as Marwari businessmen would patronize in building up Hanumana, the monkey-chief who was an ally of Ramchandra during Rama’s Lanka expedition, temple inside factory premises so that their workers could worship there.

Despite encounter with modern urban life, workers assiduously nurse feudal values. Once a permanent worker in Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation’s mains department summed up the situation nicely: “the parcel that came from Bihar went back to Bihar after retirement without being opened”.

Should the labor with a heroic history of trampling divisive/sectarian politics tolerate and give space to a seemingly pro-people, but fundamentally divisive/sectarian politics as an answer to the divisive/sectarian politics of the dominating capital/factions of the ruling classes in this economy with many competing components/regions/sections?

As workers are not politically trained, they sometimes get swayed by divisive maneuvering of capital. Workers talk politics not at factory gate. No doubt, they discuss elections but they do it as common people, not as workers. So the working class perspective is totally missing in their discourse in roadside teashops or shanties where they live.

The country with its geo-strategically important position and vying for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council is a hot bed for meddling/cajoling/pressure by imperialism. What impact is this making on the labor?

Labor being apolitical they do hardly bother about India’s quest to get a permanent seat in UN Security Council. For one thing, they definitely take interest in Pakistan-bashing. Jingoism is a time-tested tactic to divert public attention. Again, leftists don’t counter it from their workers’ platform.

Do you find the so-called NGOs, which are, in essence, longer and informal arms for implementing parts of foreign policy of a number of powerful states, influencing/intervening/organizing unions?

Yes, NGOs are operating throughout the country. Most people, not to speak of workers separately, do hardly question NGO’s source of funds and NGOs’ action program. But their influence among workers, particularly in TU movement is negligible. It’s basically a middle class enterprise trying to have their presence felt among rural people and marginalized communities.

How the radical unions are reacting to the imperialists’ moves at different levels of life in India including the areas of manufacturing and trade?

Radical Unions’ response to global capital’s anti-national activities and naked interference in some cases is too inadequate to be taken seriously. One area that is totally neglected by radical unions and their rightist counterparts as well is ecology and climate. Imperial capital means unlimited plunder of natural and human resources, and in the process, they destroy ecological balance, inviting climatic catastrophe and engendering future generations. Tragically enough, radical unions don’t consider destruction of ecology as a serious threat to humanity. They talk about it very casually. It’s not on the agenda of their party. Nor is it on their TU agenda. In this area, some NGOs work in their own way and highlight climate change and its adverse impact on society and economy. But their target audience is educated middle class. So workers in Vedanta’s aluminum smelting plant are least bothered about the disaster brought about by their company in indiscriminate mining of alumina bearing hills. However, these mining activities are displacing thousands of tribal inhabitants and killing small rivulets and streams, which sustain life in the hilly region.

Suffering of the farmers chained to credit capital, and their protests in India are now widely known. Bollywood, it should be Mullywood, has produced at least one feature film on this suffering. How the labor in the industrial part of the economy is reacting to these suffering and protests, i.e., expressing solidarity, joining the marches, etc. or having a position of onlooker, indifferent, no move to build up an alliance, etc.?

Communist parties have been propagating the concept of worker-peasant alliance since their inception. But in practice they do precious little. It’s just a theoretical proposition to be discussed in party congresses and conferences. Jute workers struggle against retrenchment and arbitrary shutdown, but plight of jute growers is not their headache.

The idea of worker-peasant alliance cannot grow in isolation. Political parties and unions they control, never try to develop any common program, so they can be work jointly. Workers at best are onlookers, rather passive onlookers even when farmers march in thousands in scorching sun. Communists formulate this worker-peasant alliance strategy by borrowing from classical Marxist literature, but what they practice in the field will never succeed in building worker-peasant alliance. In the recent farmers’ long march to Mumbai, many middle class people showed sympathy to marchers—but no central TU came forward with a clear-cut strategy to support their cause. That TUs are asking workers to withdraw labor even for a day to protest farm suicides is unthinkable.

What are the major (a) successes, and (b) failures of the main part and radical part, if identified in this way, of the labor movement in this country?

Some labor welfare schemes have been incorporated in some labor acts. These are successes. But the present dispensation is trying to take away these hard-earned rights under the garb of “labor reforms”. And here unions of all shades, including unions owning allegiance to the ruling parties, are protesting rather half-heartedly. Here they fail miserably to put up a united fight without which workers are going to face medieval tyranny.

The development of an ever more technological complex manufacturing process is root cause of re-skilling of labor force. What they call fourth industrial revolution is all about maximization of automation. Maybe, automation has reached its limits after massive introduction of robots, negating physical presence of labor that was unthinkable at the beginning of the 20th century. Trade unions yet have no answer to automation beyond a certain point. They cannot oppose technological up-gradation. Nor can they resist the advent of labor-eating process even in areas where labor-organizing could have made decisive impact on the broader aspect of bargaining.

Do you like to suggest/propose any step—ideological question, political struggle, relation between unions and radical political party of labor, leadership, inner-union democracy, political education of union members, literature—to the radical part of the labor movement in India?

Well, in the organized sector, TU bureaucracy must be fought out. Even radical unions are not free from this virus. It acts as a brake on labor movement. TUs must raise political issues frequently at workers’ meet, even at plant level, instead of agitating to achieve sectarian goals. Unless TUs educate workers on political lines, this apolitical approach will lead to a more complex situation in which labor will find itself more powerless than ever before.

Capital is global. But now, labor’s resistance is strictly localized, failing to cross the national boundary and make solidarity a reality even at the regional level. Thus, unions become powerless despite prolonged strikes in some work facilities. Gone are the days of international federations and regional or industry-wise groupings. So May 1 is one more ritual, having no lasting impact on the wretched of the earth. Internationally, both left-wing and right-wing labor consolidations hardly make any news these days; they are in limbo. Only revival of socialist outlook internationally can give boost to rebuilding international labor federations without which corporations cannot be confronted effectively.

Thank you for the interview discussing issues related to the labor in India.

Thanks. I like to express my hope that the spirit of May 1 will mend many loose ends that stand in the way of building up powerful labor solidarity across the world.

About Farooque Chowdhury
Farooque Chowdhury is a freelance writer based in Dhaka. His books in English include Micro Credit, Myth Manufactured (ed.), The Age of Crisis, and The Great Financial Crisis, What Next?: Interviews with John Bellamy Foster (ed.), Dhakha: Books (2012), 190 pp.
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We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

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