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Henry Judd

The Relevance of Trotskyism

The Great Revolutionist’s Heritage – A Discussion

(August 1949)

From The New International, Vol. XV No. 6, August 1949, pp. 179–183.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

It was in the month of August 1940 that the assassin Jacson struck at and destroyed the life of Leon Trotsky.

In past years, The New International has taken note of this memorial date by publishing, among other things, less known excerpts from Trotsky’s writings, indicative of the many-sided aspects of his personality and activity. This year we are reprinting Trotsky’s interesting speculations on the transformation of the family and its life under socialism and proletarian revolution. It is taken from the long out-of-print collection of essays entitled Problems of Life. A chapter from this work has previously been printed in the January 1948 issue of The New International.

In addition, Henry Judd’s article on The Relevance of Trotsky, representing the personal views of the author, appears in this issue as a discussion article. – Editor

Within a year, the first full decade since the death of Trotsky will have passed. It is to be hoped that plans now under way to organize an international symposium in The New International on the tenth anniversary of Trotsky’s assassination will be successful. An evaluation and estimate of Trotsky’s life work, and the relationship of his theoretical program and activity to the events of the past ten years is seriously required. This checking of theory and prognosis with real development is something that Trotsky himself always insisted upon. He never excluded himself.

This particular article has the modest task of introducing the subject and indicating some of the broad problems that must be considered. It is partly motivated by its author’s belief that it is high time to begin such a reconsideration, and partly by the fact that certain efforts in this direction have already been made with, unfortunately, disastrous results. The most recent one has been a lengthy article in the British Socialist Leader, by that publication’s historian, F.A. Ridley. Ridley, in burying Trotskyism, after a series of distorted and factually erroneous statements about its history, comes up with the fantastic viewpoint that it is dead because Stalin has taken it over! Trotskyism for him, therefore, is akin to the imperialist expansionism of Russia and the extension of Stalinism. This is theoretical bumbling carried to absurdities, and such efforts must be corrected or our discussion will be uselessly sidetracked at its start.

More serious are those who, supporters or sympathizers of Trotskyism at one period in their political lives, now turn ferociously upon it and painfully seek to discover the source of all current difficulties in some fundamental flaw, now retrospectively revealed, in the theory itself. Individuals of this tendency are familiar enough and need not be cited at length. Some discover the “flaw” to have been Trotskyism’s links with Leninism; others, with Marxism in general; and one has even turned up with the novel suggestion that our present disaster had its origin in Lenin’s acceptance of Trotskyism! There is no end of variations, but we find all such efforts lacking. They represent a twisted and unique form of Utopianism and panacea seeking, which, denying the dynamics of history, attempts to pass a sterile judgment on the past.

If politics is the struggle of “alternative programs,” it is easy to see how hopelessly afield are these people who search the past and strain after flaws and mistakes. Explicitly, or by indirection, after they have pounced upon the historical fault of Marxism, or the Russian Revolution, they suggest what the correct way should have been. Be it classical Social Democracy, or Menshevism – its Russian expression – or even the road of liberalism – it is clear that these critics of Marxism and the Russian Revolution cannot evade the responsibility of an “alternative program.” The bolder among these critics do this. But in any case, there appear to be two flaws in this method. First, it is a belittling of history since it would seem that social movements, events and changes take place much as one switches freight cars around on different tracks in a freight yard. If Russia’s masses, for example, supported Lenin and his Bolsheviks, and took power together with this Party, we cannot lay this to “accident,” or “mistake” or “trickery.” We might as well give up the study of history.

Towards Evolution of Marxist Program

More important, this kind of an approach has altogether too much in common with those whom it intends most of all to confound – the so-called orthodox Marxists, of various political tendencies, to whom the past is sacred, particularly their reading of it. Many subtle and skillful arguments could be found indicating what is wrong with both these approaches which, in different ways, subordinate a living analysis to sterile historic introspection. But we prefer a simple fact which suffices because it is based on reality. Namely, the fact that within the past 25 years our whole world has so changed, from every conceivable point of view (social, cultural, psychologic, etc.) that the relevance of the past, its criteria, examples and illustrations, has dropped catastrophically. Is this not a bald fact? The marking off point has been, of course, the Second World War and its aftermath, during which the most traditional conceptions of Marxism, expressed at that moment in the theories and program of Trotskyism, were found to be lacking. Insofar as revolutionary socialists have concerned themselves with new problems of theory and practice since 1939 (and it must be admitted that this concern is at its lowest ebb since the beginning of Marxism), their efforts have been directed toward the creation of a new program, within the broad framework of Marxist and socialist principles.

Not too much progress has been made, it must be admitted, but those who raise the demand that the critics of orthodox Marxism must produce their program, both in broad outline and in detail, fail to understand the actual process by which alternative programs are worked out at crucial moments in the history of Marxism. There must be a conscious sense of crisis and open recognition that the past, in terms of program, approach and attitude, has failed and collapsed. There must be a collective will among the leaders of progressive Marxism to grapple with the new problems, and to experiment freely, even in an empiric sense. There must be a patient understanding of the fact that creation of a new program is a painful, tedious and difficult process in which the factor of trial-and-error plays its part. We find little recognition of these requirements, despite the obvious fact that Marxism, on an international scale, can hardly sink much lower without vanishing. To make one’s way past those critics who abandon all (including the future) by their rationalistic approach to the past; to make one’s way past those who repeat the past and are smugly content with this – this is the requirement for today. We can think of no more appropriate starting point than an examination of Trotskyism and its relevancy.

In the August 22, 1949, issue of The Militant, a series of articles appears, memorializing Trotsky. The tone of these articles is hardly worthy of comment, but the central theme is the “Confirmation of Trotsky’s Ideas.” The current “crisis of Stalinism” testifies to the “correctness of his analysis,” in the eyes of his self-styled followers organized in the Socialist Workers Party, and, most unbelievable of all, we are informed that Trotsky’s “major contribution” to the socialist movement in the last years of his life was his analysis of “the nature of Stalinism”! In its own fashion, this issue of The Militant sings paeans of praise to the leader who was never wrong and who is now more correct than ever. But Trotsky, unfortunately, cannot defend himself from his “supporters.”

The above is characteristic of the movement, followers and spokesmen whom Trotsky left behind. It is doubtful if ever before in political history a truly great leader bequeathed a more pathetic group of followers whose alleged objective was to carry on in the spirit and manner of the man who headed their movement. The so-called Fourth International has proved, organizationally speaking, the most unsuccessful organization known to the history of the socialist movement. It has literally vanished from sight in most parts of the world, and it is doubtful if it could claim, with justification, 2,000 members in all lands. In Europe, its traditional center, it has virtually ceased to exist. The one mass movement it claimed (in the remote island of Ceylon) has long since dissolved into its component elements of a popular, nationalist movement loosely held together, and a narrow clique of sectarian “Trotskyists,” characteristic and typical of their fellow sects in other areas of the world.

If his organization has proved so unworthy of his name, what can be said for the political leaders and spokesmen Trotsky left behind? How fortunate for this great socialist and revolutionist that he cannot be estimated in terms of his “heirs”! If Trotsky felt called upon to denounce as epigones those whom Lenin had trained and educated, how shall we characterized this pompous group who speak in Trotsky’s name? Those whom Trotsky called epigones were giants by contrast with the “leaders of the Fourth International.” It is also significant that with few exceptions, at the same time, so many individuals who stood close to Trotsky and worked on an intimate basis with him have left both the working class and socialist movement far behind. It would appear that, with few exceptions, Trotsky’s leading cadres tended either to degenerate into bankrupt cliques, with a bureaucratic ideology; or to leave the movement on a largely personal basis in which the element of demoralization played more than its share. One must of necessity ask himself; why did such a magnificent leader, of such heroic and bold proportions, leave behind such a short-lived movement which stumbled from one disaster to another and has now definitively collapsed?

At the Core of His Perspective

A large part of the answer, of course, lies in the false perspectives which his movement inherited from Trotsky. In our publications, on many occasions, sufficient comment has been made about this for it not to require repetition now. With the collapse of the Third International, Trotsky set himself the task of creating a new International which would carry on in the same spirit and tradition engendered by the Russian Revolution. In its basic characteristics, the epoch after Trotsky declared the Stalinist International to be finished as a progressive factor, remained as before – an epoch of capitalist decline, the threat of war and fascism, a sharpening of the class struggle, etc. But most important of all, the epoch was profoundly revolutionary and the central need was for a revolutionary leadership and a revolutionary party. There was no fundamental change, and the Fourth International would replace what had failed.

Trotsky had a rounded, internally clear and consistent view of things. Proletarian revolution was at the heart of it, just as belief in the simplistic “dialectics” of Engels was at the heart of his approach to science. Little wonder that he fought so bitterly against those who tended to upset his well worked out theoretical program with either doubts or outright challenge on such matters, for example, as the “Russian Question.” It is true that certain doubts and questionings were expressed by Trotsky himself before his death. The vague possibility of other historic alternatives than proletarian revolution were mentioned, but instantly dismissed, or ridiculed. Furthermore, the overwhelming emphasis and weight given by Trotsky were on the side of socialist revolution, most concretely expressed in his perspective that the Second World War would result in a new proletarian upsurge, carrying on where the Russian Revolution had left off and ushering in a new phase of world revolution. It is true, to be sure, that Trotsky did not foresee an imminent global victory for the proletariat, but rather a, new series of revolutionary struggles, accompanied by victories and defeats, in which the Fourth International would mature and assume historic leadership. Russian Stalinism, tested and found wanting under the strains of war, would be swept aside by a resurrected Russian working class in accordance with the Trotskyist theory which saw in Stalinism an historic accident and a temporary perversion.

A Transition Between Epochs

From our standpoint, any movement which based its perspective upon such a reading of the present and future could not but find itself increasingly disoriented by reality. It is clearly not merely a misreading of historic tempo, but a failure to grasp, the profound changes occurring not only in the structure of world society, but in the source of revolutionary activity itself; i.e., socialist mass and class consciousness. Any movement which clung to the Trotsky perspective was bound to end up in that state of political paranoia, marked by a phantasy-world existence, which we see in his followers today.

We must say, in retrospect, that the period of the Second World War marks a definite transition between two epochs – the Trotsky epoch, as analyzed by the last of the classic Marxist theoreticians and revolutionists, and the new retrogressive-collectivist epoch whose nature we attempt to understand as we move into it and which presents socialist revolutionists with a new set of problems to be mastered. It is doubtful, at least to this writer, that the concepts of classic Trotskyism can be of much assistance, based as they are upon the existence of a mass socialist consciousness, forever expanding under the lash of experience and the teachings of the vanguard party. Perhaps the outstanding difference between the past of Trotsky and our present is the absence of this mass of human beings in whom socialist consciousness, to one or another degree, existed. In no nation of the world today does there exist a body of workers possessing a socialist consciousness in the traditional sense of the word; no sons and daughters of socialist fighters, trained and educated even in the inferior schools of social democracy.

There exists, to be sure, great masses of socially conscious people; in fact, they are probably more numerous than ever, and offer us a clue to the kind of program required. They desire a new life, they are against war, they have hopes and aspirations often concrete in form. But to consider the Labor Party masses of England, or the best militant workers of America, for example, as equivalent to the socialist conscious proletarians of the past is highly misleading. Even more misleading, in our opinion, would be any reference to the working class masses who follow the Stalinist leadership.

The essence of socialist consciousness lies in self-consciousness and awareness; a state of understanding in which the worker himself realizes that his and his alone is the task, that he is the creator of the revolution and socialism. But Stalinism destroys precisely this and replaces it with its own central thought that the leadership fulfills all tasks and ushers in “socialism.” Self-awareness is replaced by bureaucratic dependency and a Stalinist worker is a pitifully betrayed creature who in turn serves only reactionary purposes, thus betraying socialism.

It is time to drop our illusion of the Stalinist worker who “really is socialist.” If other masses have lost their former sense of socialism through the disruption of the past by war, fascism and other catastrophes, we must admit that Stalinist masses have had this sense of socialism thoroughly perverted. The regression of capitalism has led to one result; the emergence of international Stalinism to the other.

Problems of Socialist Program

What of other, more concrete, contributions of Trotsky to the world of Marxist theory? How do matters stand in this respect? We cannot consider here all aspects of Trotsky’s work, but only the more outstanding ones. The first, of course, is his position on Russia, Stalinism and related matters. What is universally acknowledged now to have been his major theoretical and political debacle has been hailed as his outstanding contribution by his American supporters. The “workers’ state” theory, the conception of Stalinism as a narrow, conservative and provincial force whose endurance was dubious and whose social and economic nature made imperialist expansion absurd – these and a dozen other characteristics of Russian Stalinist were the most potent immediate factor in the derailing of Trotskyism. Except for the small groups of his followers, these ideas have no status anywhere in the world today, although every socialist recognizes, accepts and learns from the history of Trotsky’s specific Russian struggle against Stalinism and his running analysis of the degeneration of the original Soviet state. But no thinking person can even seriously consider his basic conclusions on Russia and Stalinism.

The Transitional Program was one of the more remarkable documents and summaries of Trotsky’s thought in the later part of his life. It was his concretization of the revolutionary perspective, in terms of tactics and strategy, we have noted above. But if one troubles to reread it today, it must be admitted it is largely useless and irrelevant. By no means because each section and each slogan is invalid – many of its details are just as correct as before. It would be necessary, however, to reincorporate them into a new transitional program harmonizing with the fundamentally changed problems of this new period. Trotsky’s Transitional Program originates in his revolutionary perspective described above; it was the tactical and strategic means by which the Fourth International was to become the “World Party of the Socialist Revolution.” This is the spirit that permeates it and this is what, unfortunately, means that it corresponds in no sense to our new requirements.

A “transitional program” is surely needed, but not one directed exclusively at proletarian and vanguard revolutionary elements, aiming to define the relationship between class and vanguard party. Trotsky’s program was based upon the assumption that a mass, specific proletarian consciousness existed, in a dormant state, and required only the sting of vanguard consciousness to arouse it from lethargy. Experience, of course, was to play its role. But this proved to be, in fact, a wrong assumption. Can this be denied? The gap to be bridged is much wider and deeper than that between party and class. It is no longer a gap of inner class relationships, but rather a gap between the working class as a whole, together with its socialist consciousness, and the rest of society.

A new program must concern itself with the problem of resurrecting socialist consciousness and thereby beginning to regain for the working class its role – now lost – as leader and emancipator of society. But these are problems necessarily of an entirely different order than those Trotsky concerned himself with in his Transitional Program. They go back to the origins of Marxian socialism itself, rather than resting upon the long Marxist tradition, as did Trotsky’s program. He cannot help us with this.

The Theory of Permanent Revolution

Trotsky’s unique contribution to Marxist analysis, of course, was his theory of the permanent revolution. Although he lacked the opportunity to develop it in its fullest and most rounded form, his life work was permeated with the tactics and strategy upon which this theory was based. In defining the relationship between proletariat and petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie in backward, colonial countries, Trotsky was mainly concerned with revolutionary power. In our epoch, he maintained, those tasks formerly associated with the bourgeois democratic revolution (national independence, unity of the country, agrarian solution, etc.) could only be solved by a proletariat in power. In the sense that a progressive, democratic and socialist solution of such tasks can be achieved only by the proletariat, Trotsky’s theory remains entirely true and valid. But we know now that, in the form he presented it, it is no longer adequate and its proposed tactics and strategy are largely obsolete abstractions.

What has brought this about? On the one hand, imperialism is an abstract and absolute force in Trotsky’s theory. Because of his concentration upon immediate issues within the national-revolutionary movement itself (as, for example, in his writings on China), Trotsky did not concern himself with changes in imperialism itself. This was, of course, entirely correct and we do not mention this in any critical sense. But, particularly since the war, the changes within imperialism have been of such a significant nature that this alone has altered the whole problem of colonialism. The outstanding example is the decline of the British Empire and the freeing of India. In terms of a mechanical application of Trotsky’s theory, it is impossible to conceive of an independent India. (A large portion of the Indian Trotskyist movement, consistent to the point of absurdity, still maintains that India is not free!)

More important with regard to Trotsky’s theory is the conquest of huge colonial areas by Stalinism which, in its own way, “achieves” the tasks of the “democratic” revolution. This is related to the emergence of a new force – neither capitalist nor socialist – seeking world power. Trotsky vehemently denied such a possibility, which every sane person now recognizes. It is no longer a problem of theory, but one of reality.

Since the socialist movement in those colonial areas where Stalinism comes to power now finds (or will find) that its problems are no longer those of liquidating feudalism, colonialism and imperialism, but rather of an anti-Stalinist, democratic revolution, it too faces new, undreamed of problems. It must painfully fight its way through new, unknown territory and, at best, Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution can assist it only by the spirit of its approach, its audacity, etc.

This is no longer the colonial world of 1925-27, and it is a major task in itself to readapt and rework Trotsky’s theory for this new colonial world. Related to this, of course, is the need to revise Lenin’s theory of imperialism which, both descriptively and analytically, simply no longer fits reality.

We have left for the last the question of the revolutionary vanguard party. While this well may be the crucial question in the future of Marxism and socialism itself, it is not the case in any appreciation of Trotskyism. Trotsky accepted the Leninist party, to be sure, but he did not contribute much to what he took over. In fact, his main concern with the role of the party as such dealt largely with its inner degeneration (The New Course, etc.) and his struggle against its bureaucratism. There are indications that he tended to change his opinion on the role of the party, above all in a little-noticed article on the subject of “class, mass and party” published after his death. But for all intents and purposes, Trotsky proposed that the Fourth International continue in the Leninist tradition.

To discuss the question of the party is really to discuss the question of Leninism and its validity today. In such a summary article as this, it would take us far afield and must therefore be left aside except to remark that whatever Trotskyist “parties” exist today are but bureaucratic caricatures of even the Leninist conception. A true, Trotsky-created party has never existed (and never will), which makes it still more difficult to talk concretely about Trotsky’s conception of the party.

Master of Tactics and Strategy

Without any pretense of more than introducing the subject, the above seem to me to represent the fundamentals of Trotskyism, and the status of these fundamentals today. This brief treatment is not adequate, but it is presented in the hope that it will stimulate thought and discussion along needed lines. But what then remains of Trotskyism as such? It is an integral part of the revolutionary socialist heritage, and as such particularly rich in instruction and rewarding in example. But its place in Marxist history must be understood in relation to the new problems of today which are yet far from solution, far from even a correct posing.

There is, first of all, the example contained in Trotsky’s life itself, above all in this period of moral and personal disintegration. What has been said of Trotsky’s integrity, devotion and capacity for struggle remains as true as ever. A biography worthy of his revolutionary genius remains to be written. It seems most unlikely that the socialist movement of the future, where emphasis will be placed upon the solving of comparatively small problems by popular action and in which action itself, rather than ideological thought and contemplation, will be the real instrument of education – it seems most unlikely that such a movement will produce leaders of Trotsky’s caliber. If Trotsky exemplified theory and practice at their best, we must realize that the events of his life span permitted such an integration.

Marxism today is a frustrated movement, turned inward and unable to relax its limbs by activity. Socialist education in Trotsky’s time, meant preparation for life and practice, but that type of education would be worthless today since no action follows from it. Education, which means creation of socialist consciousness, must now actually become part of action itself; an education through doing. But this is only another of the many ways in which our problems differ from the past.

Secondly, the example of internationalism in theory and practice is a particularly valuable gift from Trotsky. This formed a part of his approach to every single problem, and while the “national question”is with us as Trotsky never foresaw it would be (in the form of Titoism, it is with us in a form no one ever conceived of), the solution to this unexpected problem is still possible on an internationalist basis, without any violation of opposition to imperialist war, etc. Trotsky’s internationalism, of course, is contained in his handling of each new tactical and strategic problem, and this brings us to what is perhaps – for us – the most significant part of his life and work.

Trotsky was the greatest Marxist master of tactics and strategy. Any intensive study of his writings on various revolutionary crises (in China, England, Germany, etc.) will quickly reveal this. If his proposals had triumphed, and his criticism had been adopted, all would have been different. Perhaps these writings, largely polemical and critical, will remain as his most useful products for us. Not that we may expect a duplication of the situations analyzed, but we may learn from the approach and method Trotsky used in solving amazingly complex tasks. The care with which he assembled his facts, the sweep of his approach which linked up tactical methods with strategic needs and, above all, his flexibility and rejection of doctrinaire solutions; his capacity for new ideas and experimental ways, his willingness to twist and turn sharply in accordance with his estimate of events.

We are well aware that Trotsky developed his tactics and strategy within the framework of his overall conceptions, but he never permitted himself to deduce automatically tactics and strategy from abstract principles. The general framework of Marxist and socialist thought still exists, but in a changed world. We believe Trotsky would be first to accept this and first to plunge into the work of meeting this new challenge.

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