December 7, 2012
Some Critical Notes on the Fetishism of the Party, or: Why I am Not a Trotskyist
The proliferation of the micro-party in the West is a subject many times examined, and I would not pretend to say too much that is original about it. Already Hal Draper wrote much on this subject, the libertarian communist tradition has had various critiques, and there has moreover been a very considerable literature of self-examination and party histories among the micro-parties in different countries. The majority of this last literature both concerns and is produced by the Trotskyists, and it is they who have by far the largest proliferation and attach the greatest importance to the multiplicity of such micro-party structures; moreover, in some respects these formations themselves seem to follow from Trotskyist thought more organically than they do from other currents. This is not to say that this phenomenon is wholly unique to Trotskyism, as there have been various Maoist, ‘anti-revisionist’ and other micro-parties as well, often demonstrating the same essential weaknesses.
But it is in Trotskyism that it has the greatest focus of attention, and since the fall of the USSR it is Trotskyism that has numerically and politically the greatest support in most Western countries among the whole spectrum of independent Marxist groupings and associations (therefore not counting Marxists inside social-democratic formations). For this reason, it is particularly important to make a few critical notes about the persistent weaknesses of this political current in its practice, in order to mark out a clear difference of method and viewpoint on my part, as well as to invite some more productive reflection than the usual. Of course, as always with such critiques, whoever fits the shoe should put it on – my aim is not a personal nor a specific attack on this or that organization as such, but to point out what I see as some persistent trends many or most have in common, and which to me appear as unhelpful or even destructive. So what I shall write about Trotskyism in general here may be applied wherever it fits best.
Perhaps it is because it was Trotsky who famously said that nobody can be right against the Party(1), that one of the two central elements of Trotskyism’s negative practice is the obsession with the Party and party formation as a transhistorical phenomenon. In the persistent debates between Trotskyists and within Trotskyist party formations, there is a constant focus on organizational questions as the decisive factor, as the start of all relevant critical analysis. Partially this is also because of the historical interpretation of revolution and the revolutionary subject common among Trotskyists, which forms the second element, about which more later. Partially this must be because the many micro-parties agree with each other on so many issues that the differences, largely cosmetic or even invisible to outsiders, must be justified by the various participants as following from some greater logic inhering in the situation – a logic then ascribed to the organizational form of this or that party.
To my mind, the correct approach in organizational questions would be that the organizational form flows as the conclusion, the last moment in the analysis, from an empirical and historical understanding of political economy and its motion. It is telling that revolutionary movements with potential in the past have never at any time had difficulty finding or creating organizations that suited them for the moment, forms of collectivity through which they could politically act. This is not a difficult thing to do and in a situation where the forces of revolution are gaining strength, all organizations will be strengthened by it, and it becomes a matter of vision and superior scientific understanding of the prevailing direction of events – as exemplified by both the rise and fall of the First International. However, precisely because the Trotskyists have never made a revolution anywhere, nor even come close to one, since they have become a movement and political tradition in their own right (say from the moment of Trotsky’s declaration of opposition within the USSR onwards), the question of organization has become a true obsession. Vast is the literature by and for Trotskyists about the Russian Revolution, for them the one eternal yardstick of revolutionary activity, and on the “Nature of the Party”, the question of “Leninist organization”, and so on and so forth. Virtually anyone who is or wants to be anything in Trotskyism writes such a work. Within their own practice, too, Trotskyist micro-parties spend an admirable amount of time on self-reflection, analyzing in meticulous and exhausting detail every twist and turn of policy and ‘line’, every attempt at entryism or separatism, every decision to focus on student recruitment or to ‘go into the factories’, and all the rest of it.
Yet throughout its existence as a movement characterized by the proliferation of micro-parties, the actual numerical and political significance of these parties seems to be inversely proportional to the amount of time and effort spent on getting the question of organization exactly right. The fetishism of the party here expresses itself in the notion that perpetually latently present is ‘the Revolutionary Party’, an entity which in and through its very existence would be able to gather the masses of the working class around it and lead it to revolution. The only question then is to find the right formula, the ‘open sesame’ that will enable any really existing group or party formation to take the mantle of this Revolutionary Party in their time and place. Of course, since in politics virtually anything is theoretically possible, this requires searching for some sort of clue as to what the right formula might be – and this is where the Russian Revolution and its successful Revolutionary Party comes in. The magic formula of the Russian Revolution needs but be distilled from all that is known about the sequence of political events that constituted it, and then this formula applied to the circumstances of the day – and surely victory must be assured. The endless invocations of the Russian Revolution, the use of Lenin and his ideas on organization as the hallmark of Trotskyist thought, and the quest for the holy grail of the Revolutionary Party throughout modern history itself lead simply to the desire to shamanistically assume the divine Persona of the revolution in the really existing micro-party. A consummation devoutly to be wished, but one that has so far always eluded the Trotskyist movement.
It therefore does not at all seem to bother the comrades of the various Trotskyist micro-parties that despite their claims to being a mass party, or even just being a mass party in becoming, they have singularly failed to advance in significance since the end of World War II. Many of the parties have existed in one form or another for quite a long time, and like everyone have had their ups and downs, whether it is the SWP (UK), the ISO, the various Australian parties, the Lutte Ouvrière, or what have you; but in no place whatsoever have they been able to systematically grow as a party, create or use a revolutionary situation, or even make themselves appear significant on the bourgeois-dominated political scene in any way. For most of contemporary history the Trotskyist organizations were able to blame the dominance of the Moscow line parties for this, who even in countries where Trotskyism has been relatively strong (the US, France) controlled what Communist militancy existed among the unions and the general population, and were therefore seen as ‘blocking’ the Trotskyist road to revolution. But since 1990 or so they have not had that excuse, and yet their growth, either numerically or in political power, has been practically negligible.
Yet this is never seriously analyzed as a consistent and significant phenomenon. The members of this or that particular party formation know perfectly well that they are not really members of a ‘mass party’, and that throughout their lifetime they probably never will be (and for many older generation Trotskyists this has been true). But this is always analyzed in organizational terms, or in terms of the failure to use this or that opportunity of revival among the unions, or because of the ‘sectarianism’ of the other parties, or the failure to achieve ‘left unity’ (always called for, never achieved), or in the vagaries of this or that leadership (hence the endless histories of minor personages in Marxist history). In short, it is always analyzed as if it were a matter of a contingent failure of the particular formation to achieve the true status of the Revolutionary Party, but that this is a thing that could be achieved if only there were the right line/organization/leadership/unity/etc. The Platonic form of the Revolutionary Party is there, but the flesh is weak and all matter is flawed, and out of the crooked timber of Trotskyism no straight line to revolution has yet been made. In this way the Trotskyist analysis of their own position is analogous to the Plotinian/Augustinian one of Christianity: if only everyone weren’t so flawed, the City of God would have appeared already; but as things are we must simply sigh and continue our arduous task, until the Lord takes us to our well-deserved rest.
This is not just a failure of the imagination. It also follows from the Trotskyist reading of history and its significance for Marxist thought. Here, of course, opinions also vary in manifold ways, and again I would insist that I am speaking in a ‘synthetic’ way, realizing full well that not every individual is equally represented by this – with ‘Trotskyism’ here I am speaking about the personification of a particular way of interpreting the world politically. The Trotskyist view of history, then, is immediately bound up with its origins after the Russian Revolution. While not all Trotskyists agree or have agreed with Trotsky’s own analysis of the Soviet Union and its evolution since the Russian Revolution, what they tend to have in common are a number of historical and political notions which reinforce the failure of self-understanding outlined above, and strengthen the fetishism of the party. The Russian Revolution is for the Trotskyist the sine qua non of all Marxist political understanding, and the political understanding is the primary mode of analysis, preceding all the rest. Because the Russian Revolution succeeded where the other socialist movements in other countries failed to do so, whether through their own fault (the polemics with Kautsky) or not (the German Revolution itself), it is the one yardstick by which all Marxist activity is judged.
In this way, the Russian Revolution is transhistoricized into a kind of incarnation of the universal: instead of being a contingent success of a particular strategy, a particular alliance, and a particular series of events at a given time and place, it becomes the model for Marxist revolutions in general, and it derives all its significance from being this. This leads, as I have argued, to its almost rabbinical over-examination in every detail for organizational practice today. But it also leads to an essentially static and ahistorical understanding of historical change, especially after the Russian Revolution itself. Trotskyism has consistently defined itself as 1) continuing the ‘legacy’ of the Russian Revolution, and 2) rejecting any kind of more or less successful collective revolutionary action since as being inadequate in light of the precedent of the Russian Revolution, basically for not being the Russian Revolution over again.
Trotskyism then appears (and they seem to pride themselves on this) as the historical extension, or where necessary (re)invention, of the Russian Revolution as a historical moment. But this leads to a purely oppositional attitude to all historical events since: not only in the form of polemics against the mass movements of Stalin and Mao, but also against all other parties and political movements of the day insofar as they cannot be incorporated in the formula of the Russian Revolution (leading to endless wrangling about the relationship of gender and LGBT liberation, for example, to ‘the Revolutionary Party’). In continuing a legacy, it completely fails to “let the dead bury the dead” – instead, it is the living proof that the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Haunted by the Russian Revolution, all history is interpreted in opposition to it; either in the failure to replicate it – often tragically, as in the cases of Germany, Italy, the Spanish Civil War, etc. – or in the form of successful revolutions that are rejected because they do not fit the logic of the Russian Revolution itself, like the Maoist revolution in China. Even such erudite and intelligent Trotskyist scholars as Neil Davidson fail to understand in China anything but a continuation, or perhaps a re-eruption, of what in the historical timeline belongs before the Russian Revolution: i.e., the bourgeois revolution.(2)
In this way, the Russian Revolution is deformed from a quintessentially historical inspiration, a moment of history that is past, into a political criterion, a moment of politics that is present. The only political analogies possible to this are the invocations of the ‘Founding Fathers’ and the formation of the constitutional federal state by American liberals; or, in a different domain of theory, the understanding of modern capitalism as the one incarnation and criterion of economic history displayed by 19th century Whiggish historians and even today by such figures as the New Institutionalist Economic Historians. In all these cases, it is as for the Trotskyists after the Russian Revolution: as Marx satirized, “there has been history, but there is no longer any”.
One sees this also in the Trotskyist understanding of the relationship between politics, history, and economics in Marxist thought more generally. For me, the empirical-historical understanding must always come first. Marxism is first the materialist understanding of history, not just as a point of logic (one must eat before one philosophizes, being determines consciousness) but because the very understanding of the economic and the political follow from it, if the whole is to be a valid reasoning. If Marxism is to make sense, the significance of the working class can rest only in their presumed role as the historical subject that for economic reasons is the reproducer of capitalist society, and thereby cannot emancipate itself without overthrowing that society. The Marxist politics, such as it is, in turn must follow from this.
This may seem banal and readily agreed on by many Marxists. However, it means that any reading of history that seeks first to find in this history the application of political principles, and only then concerns itself with the ‘details’ of the self-understanding of the historical actors or the empirical constraints in which they worked, or for that matter the significance of historical events for the evolution of economic history, is totally impermissible. A typical Trotskyist reasoning about Mao’s China, for example, to read it as a species of bourgeois revolution despite the self-understanding of all the actors involved (including the KMT, the US etc), simply because it failed to be “based in the working class politically”, or did not follow the organizational forms of the Russian Revolution, or did not do “socialism from below” politically, or any such thing, is simply historiographically invalid. It fails an elementary criterion of any historiography, socialist or liberal or conservative, which is first to take the source material, the self-understandings of the actors, the economic historical statistics, and so forth as the departure point of any analysis; then to analyze them as to their significance in terms of their factually observable economic, cultural, political etc. effects on the evolution of the world; and only then to derive political conclusions from this.
It may seem lecturing and perhaps condescending to point this out, but these principles are honored by the Trotskyists – as well as their historical main opponents within Marxism, like the supporters of Stalin – most often in the breach, and this violates the logic that makes Marxism as an integrated scientific system of thought at least potentially possible. If the political scheme of things, such as the idea that the working class must be central to a revolutionary situation if it is to ‘count’, precedes the actual analysis of events, for example analyzing a revolution made on the basis of peasant elements in greater numbers than working class ones, the logic of Marxism where historical-empirical work must underpin the political conclusions falls to the ground. It becomes merely a schematic, dogmatic series of assertions. One does not need to believe in ‘value-neutral science’ to understand the rules of historiography, and one major problem with Trotskyism is its persistent violation of these. This is not just a pedantic point of scientific practice, but it has serious consequences for their understanding of events. Because a number of political theses seen as elementary to Marxism are taken as given, first and foremost, and the empirical and economic analysis of events is subsumed under this, Trotskyism fails entirely itself to adapt and evolve theoretically to new circumstances.
It devolves into the rote repetetition of a series of digestible political phrases, with some historical and economic elements thrown in purely serving as illustration: something one sees practically in the extremely limited ‘canon’, largely oriented towards political-organizational tracts, prescribed to fledgling members of Trotskyist micro-parties. There have been many quite brilliant and inventive scholars within the Trotskyist tradition and many have truly helped Marxist understanding forward. Nonetheless for most Trotskyist party members it seems this has not in the least helped the actual scope and method of analysis escape the narrow confines of the usual: a digest of Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Ernest Mandel, bits and pieces of Lenin and Trotsky themselves, and perhaps larded with an occasional strawman critique of Maoism or anarchism put (rather amusingly for outsiders) entirely in terms of their failure to achieve the Platonic Revolutionary Party, as if that is what they intended to do. It’s not even that reading Cliff or Trotsky or Mandel is such a bad thing. It is that this narrow selection and its lens of interpretation focused around ‘getting the Party right’ utterly fails to enable the members and activists to think critically in historical and economic terms about the failure of Trotskyism itself to achieve its own goals. It thereby prevents it from improving itself and escaping the perpetual application of old points, learned by heart, to new situations, sold as ‘analysis’ in newspapers nobody reads. This is the very thing that has made Trotskyism (and sadly Marxism by association) such a ridiculous, inept, and irrelevant phenomenon to so many even on the left.
To sum up then, in my view if Trotskyism is to understand itself better and contribute to Marxist development in the future, it must improve on its fetishism of the party in two ways.
1) it must abandon the ahistorical reification of the Russian Revolution as an incarnation of the one, true, revolutionary road and method, and the obsession with understanding every detail of it, as if repeating its phrases and slogans or its organizational structures would recreate it as a historical moment in the here and now; and
2) it must abandon the politically preconceived reading of history as a mere means of illustrating the failure to ‘achieve the Party’ since the Russian Revolution. This also means giving up its rote application to historical analysis of stock Marxist phrases and notions like “the working class as the source of real revolution”, “the Party as the form of working class activity”, the meaningless and scholastic arguments over “deformed workers’ states” versus “state capitalism” devoid of any thorough historical and empirical (not political!) analysis, and the general attitude of futile nostalgia and wishful thinking about alternative historical courses (‘if only they had listened to Trotsky’). All these, and many similar rote, unquestioned assumptions serve only to hinder economic, long-term historical understanding and to overestimate the significance of individuals and individual events in history. Instead, I would personally suggest reading less Trotsky and more ‘bourgeois’ economic history books, in the same way that Marx and Engels spent their time supporting their theories with the works of Ricardo and Morgan, not with Cabet and Proudhon.
I do not have much hope that this will happen or even really be understood as anything but a ‘sectarian’ attack on Trotskyism, because it is of course true that by asking this, I am essentially asking Trotskyism to stop being Trotskyism. But in light of the utter failure of any Trotskyist micro-party to evolve into anything greater than a body of political activism and propaganda with maybe a few thousand members at best and an immensely rapid turnover of names and invididuals, I am not so sure what makes the Trotskyist movement so confident that the basic elements of its method of analysis are not due for revision. Many people I respect and like personally are involved in Trotskyist organizations or see themselves as Trotskyists, and I am not in the least inclined to dismiss all of them as being of no value; nor do I think things are much better among the micro-parties that end in ‘Marxist-Leninist’ (who are usually happy to have more than 20 members) or equally tiny sects like the RCP(USA). If anything, the opposite is the case: the persistent failure of Trotskyism is itself a hindrance to the development of any Marxist movement in the West, in the last instance even a political movement, that can actually historically justify itself and thereby achieve a measure of revolutionary potential and unity.
1) Cited in: http://www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1979/trotsky/ch2.htm#s3
2) See: Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?. Note that Davidson, in some ways more theoretically sophisticated than most of the Trotskyism I am attacking here, makes the argument based on a distinction between political and social revolution. I believe this conception is valuable, but he uses it nonetheless once more to support Trotskyist ahistoricism; a full critique must wait for another time.