Cyril Smith

On the Importance of Having Been a Trotskyist

THERE ARE two sides to this title. Not only was it important to have seriously participated in the attempt to build the Fourth International and to grasp its ideas; it was also vital to have subsequently and equally seriously ceased to hold to those ideas. There are people who spent a few years in the movement and who nowadays shrug their shoulders and declare how foolish it all was. I don’t agree at all. I shall argue that I was right to join and right to break away.

I first encountered Trotskyism and Trotsky’s writings in 1948. It is hard for young and even for not-so-young readers to picture the world of that time. The post-war boom and the Cold War were already getting underway, but war, mass unemployment and fascism still loomed large in the thinking of millions of people. The Attlee government, brought to power by millions of workers and soldiers on a wave of hope and expectation, was showing its essential corruption and opportunism. The Russian Revolution and its fate dominated all political thinking.

(It happened like this: I went to University College London in 1947 and started to attend the meetings of the Communist Party. These were heavily influenced by J.B.S. Haldane and so included quite a number of biologists. Suddenly, I was puzzled to find, we were engaged in a discussion about pig-breeding! In fact, this was a reflection of Haldane’s fight in the CP against the ideas of Stalin’s favourite “biologist,” Lysenko. Soon, I was also being told that Tito, formerly thought to be building socialism in Yugoslavia, had now turned out to be a fascist agent of US imperialism. When I met a couple of members of the Revolutionary Communist Party, my CP friends told me not to talk to them, because “they’re fascists.” That’s how I became a Trotskyist.)

Once I could see that the Stalinists were reactionary liars, I began to devour whatever writings of Leon Trotsky I could get hold of. I was overwhelmed by the heroism of his struggle for the revolution and, it must be confessed, also by the power of his style. But, above all, what impressed me when I came to study his writings on Russia, on China, on Germany, France and Spain, was that here was a unified way of understanding the world. No wonder I began to think of myself as a Trotskyist. Forty years later, I still did so, albeit a little more hesitantly.

I look back on those years with a certain embarrassment and even shame when I recall some of my activities. But, altogether, I still believe that this was about the best thing I could have done, and the alternatives never seemed worth a light. What else was there worth doing? Follow a “successful career"? Get into Parliament? Make money?

Of course, the world changed many times over during those decades. Indeed, change was already well underway when I started. To try to deal with this embarrassing characteristic of reality, we learnt to play all kinds of intellectual tricks. But I must insist that certain basic ideas were right.

Capitalism, which can only be confronted as a world order, was and remains a danger to the future of humanity. Only the struggle of the working class movement can avert this danger. Stalin was the grave-digger of revolution, and the states established under his rule were anything but socialist. Whatever the faults which can now be seen in Trotsky’s attempt to give a scientific account of the revolution and its betrayal, these simple ideas are still the only way to understand the world.

I still believe that the uprising of workers in Petrograd and some other towns in 1917 was one of the most important events of the twentieth century, and that the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky played a vital role at that time. Even when the revolution was bottled up in the ruins of the Tsarist Empire, the refusal of the Bolsheviks to give up was magnificent. But the outcome of what we can now see was a hopeless fight, was not a “socialist” advance in human freedom but a monstrously inhuman machine.

During those four decades during which I thought I was a Trotskyist, the movement went through all kinds of intellectual contortions to try to patch up its programme and theories to fit the world. Some of these shifts were no more than terminological experiments. The states of Eastern Europe were “deformed workers’ states,” the long period of economic expansion was merely an episode in the long decline of world imperialism, the many and varied movements for national independence in former colonial countries were described as “the colonial revolution,” and so on.

Of course, such a method had to hit a brick wall eventually, and so it did. In the 1980s, I decided that it was necessary to check everything. But this simple aim turned out to demand a more protracted and painful process than I could have imagined. My first step was to try to graft artificially Marx’s humanist conception of communism on to my Trotskyist notions – another patching operation. But it turned out that every such patch had taken us further and further from Marx’s understanding of communism as “universal human emancipation.” Just adding the two bits together was impossible, and I gave up this approach.

Now I realised that something much more drastic was required. For this, the hardest aspect was a decisive break with Lenin – not Lenin’s historic role, but his efforts to theorise it. I still recall the guilt, doubt and pain associated with this break. At first I tried to cling to everything except the Lenin of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, but that was a hopeless compromise. It has taken me fifteen years or so to be able to see that you can’t combine Marx’s work with Bolshevism, or with the “old materialism” which is its philosophical basis. They just don’t fit.

Three ideas were crucial to Trotskyism, or “Bolshevik-Leninism,” as Trotsky preferred to call it. First came the certainty that 1917 marked the start of the world revolution. Second, the revolution betrayed by Stalin was still not destroyed: a workers’ state, however degenerate, had to be defended and expanded. Third, all of this implied that the building of an international revolutionary leadership, the Fourth International, was the only answer to the “crisis of human culture".

By 1990, it became impossible to uphold the first of these notions. (I’m told that there are some circles in which the attempt is religiously continued, but I never mix in such company these days.) However, the certainty that October 1917 provided the model for all proletarian revolution was still fixed firmly in people’s heads.

The idea of a “workers’ state” first arose only in 1920, when the Soviet state was already in the process of degeneration. It implied that bureaucratic control of the state apparatus was somehow compatible with a kind of semi-socialism, chiefly meaning central state control of the economy. Here was a “workers’ state,” in which workers were oppressed.

These incoherent notions were held together by the certainty that the way forward to communism required the hegemony over the working class of a disciplined political party. We, the revolutionaries, had the right ideas, we were quite sure, so we had the task of persuading or tricking or even forcing the masses to turn our ideas into forms of mass action.

Only slowly did it dawn on me that none of these ideas had any place in the work of Karl Marx. So I began work on the re-study of Marx and was amazed to find (a) that Marx had nothing to do with what we knew as “Marxism” at all, and (b) that the actual ideas of Marx were bang up-to-date.

What were these ideas about? Were they a set of “doctrines,” or “opinions,” to be transmitted by an act of will to ignorant masses? Were they some “scientific theories,” hypotheses for confirmation or rejection in the light of political experimentation?

None of these. Marx was concerned with the nature of humanity, and of how in class society its way of living denied its human essence. Bourgeois society, dominated by money and its development into capital, was a form of life “not appropriate to and worthy of our human nature” (Capital, Volume 3). In the grip of capital and the state, humans treated each other and themselves as things, while inanimate forms like money and the state were treated as subjects. A human social form would be a “free association of producers.” That is what the long struggle of the working class was really about, whatever the varied forms in which it appeared. To reach fruition, the understanding of this content was essential.

Marx’s work was necessarily incomplete and still requires a lot more effort to bring it into the twenty-first century. It was scientific in a very special sense. It does not put forward instruction as to how the world ought to be. It does not tell us “what is to be done” and provides no blueprint for a better world. Its aim is to break through those forms of thought in which the inhuman power of capital is enshrined and which are the ideological barrier to human freedom. This critical enterprise opens the way to a “truly human society”, a “free association.”

What we have to do is not to “take power”, but to show how to live without power. This is a not a task for a revolutionary elite, but collectively for all those oppressed under the existing order.

All this is, I am sure, highly unsatisfactory for old Bolsheviks, used to the comfortable certainties of traditional doctrines. Good. It is as far as I have got so far. Limited as it may be, I regard it as the positive outcome of my time as a Trotskyist.