Color photo of Trotsky (1940)

No “true” Trots, man

A response to Corey Ansel
on “authentic” Marxism

IMAGE: Color photo of Leon Trotsky (1940)

While I’m sympathetic to many of Corey Ansel’s criticisms of both the crisis-ridden Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and their recently-disaffected cadre, I am only sympathetic up to a point. The same goes for an earlier piece in which he sought to combat the various “neo-Kautskyite” critiques that have been leveled at the SWP’s brand of “Leninism” by figures such as Pham Binh, Louis Proyect, and members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) like Ben Lewis, all of whom draw inspiration from Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in Context. While Lih’s study provides an important corrective to readings that anachronistically project Lenin’s later disgust with Kautsky back onto their relationship prior to August 1914, something Trotsky himself pointed out in his short rebuttal “Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg” (1932),  the fact remains that Lenin sided on numerous occasions with Luxemburg against Kautsky and Trotsky against the Old Bolsheviks after this point.

Certainly Lenin and Trotsky — and yes, even Lenin-ism and Trotsky-ism — deserve to be saved from those who shamelessly vulgarize them, as well as from those who think they have discredited these figures or traditions by defeating such mere caricatures. But the truth of the matter is that no one can really be a “Leninist” today apart from the most general attention to discipline, organization, and more or less democratic or centralized elements. Lenin spoke about politics as something that could only meaningfully occur when the masses began being counted in millions, when space and time were measured in continents and epochs. In this sense, no one on the Left can be “political” today, if for no other reason that no workers movement exists on such a scale. Still less can one be a “Trotskyist,” especially as Trotskyism itself was only formed as a coherent body of doctrines subsequent to Trotsky’s exile, from the outside looking in. (In this sense the foundation of the Fourth International was in itself an admission of defeat, at least in terms of Trotsky’s former strategy of saving the Third International through the Left Opposition. This remains so even if its motives were noble).

Today a sober look at political reality requires the recognition,  however paradoxical it may seem, that “the irrelevance of Lenin [to contemporary politics] is his relevance” and that, while “Trotskyism was the best of the Left,…even the best people stink when their corpses begin to decompose.” This is not mere cleverness or wordplay. If it appears paradoxical, it is because politics at present is itself paradoxical — because the Left today stands at a political impasse, haunted by the memory of what once seemed possible.

This is why, for all his incisive observations, Ansel misses the mark when he asserts:

The working class movement needs authentic Marxists who are more than ready to ruthlessly critique those who falsely lay claim to the legacy of Leninism.

I’m skeptical about the idea of an “authentic” Marxism, but this may just owe to my skepticism toward the jargon of “authenticity” in general. But even assuming that there was ever such thing as an “authentic” Marxist (there were Marxists and non-Marxists), I’m not sure that one could be an authentic Marxist today. This is because — beyond simply an affinity for a certain theoretical framework that might be termed “Marxian,” the more academic term — the label of “Marxist” always tended to connote some sort of connection to an historical Marxist political project and membership in an organization arising out of it. Being a Marxist in this latter sense really isn’t possible today, if only for the fact that historical Marxism is dead, kaput, vanished.

Ruthless critique is necessary, now as ever. But we must not exempt ourselves from such criticisms. Those with any fondness for the great revolutionaries and revolutionary movements of the past should be honest enough with ourselves to admit that we are nowhere close to the political prospects that existed only a century ago.  We are not in any position to assess the applicability of the principle of “democratic centralism” to a revolutionary context, if only for the fact that no such context can be said to exist.

This is why demands for “authentic” Marxists ultimately ring hollow. In 2013, there are no “true” Trots, man.

13 thoughts on “No “true” Trots, man

  1. You need to take a look at the Workers Party of Argentina. Is the biggest party in the country and it has a very extensive review of the trotskist parties debacle.

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    • Ho ho! Fool! Marxists “argue with themselves” like scientists “argue with themselves”: it’s how they come to agreement on how to proceed in the most efficient and scientifically correct way towards their goals. In the case of Marxists, it is the overthrow of “[your] capitalism”! (What a phrase!). To Marxists this endless “argument” you so idiotically deride is as necessary to us as water and sunshine is to life on Earth.
      Enjoy “your” capitalism, dum-dum! And if you’re like about 80% of the workers in the US who slave away their entire lives only to manage to save $30,000 for their retirement after 40 years of toil, you will get the reward you deserve for your love of “your” capitalism: a life lived in debt up to your arse, constantly in fear of losing your job and then struggling to survive on the pittance doled out by the US’ safety-basketball-net! Good luck!


      • It depends on what you mean by “science,” Kevin. Do you mean natural science? Leaving aside Engels’ somewhat overhasty Dialectics of Nature, Marxism is not interested in natural phenomena for their own sake (only insofar as they might impact society). The German word Wissenschaft, which is usually translates as “science,” is closer to the meaning Marx and Engels intended.

  4. Two thoughts, if we can keep it to that.

    “No ‘true’ Trots”: is a bit of nonsense. For your “true” Trotskyist parties today, if you’re interested in “authentic” Trotskyism (is that like looking for “authentic” Mexican cuisine or something?) you can simply look at the history of the Fourth International: what parties existed and were supported by Trotsky during his life? Then follow the history of those parties to see which are still around today. Check them out and decide for yourself if their programme represents – to you – “authentic” Trotskyism, i.e. programmatic agreement and support for Trotsky’s philosophical ideals. Some parties, like the American SWP have openly abandoned Trotskyism , while they still publish his works. The Sparts and Internationalist Group are both splits from the American SWP that espouse revolutionary Trotskyist ideals. The ISO pretends to be Trotskyist, but does not uphold his political programme or his methods: their leadership has far more in common with the Stalinists they pretend to hate. If you’re a curious worker or student looking for a revolutionary party to join, go around and check them all out for yourself and then see if you think you can work with those folks; and when you find a party that most closely approximates what you believe to be “authentic Trotskyism” then join that org.; you can always leave and join another party – or be like Lenin and start one yourself (like we did) if you think they’re falling short of what you believe to be “authentic Trotskyism”! And you should always, no matter what party you join, be ready to fight like hell to keep that group on the right revolutionary road.

    Second point: it’s annoying to hear people attempt to discredit what someone says by responding with “Lenin said [this]” or “Lenin said [that]”, taking Lenin’s ideas out of context and trying to win an argument by quoting him out of context.

    Lenin said a lot of stuff; his career spanned decades; much of what he “said” was said in the heat of a polemic directed at a specific person or school of thought and was never intended to be a “decree from on high” applicable everywhere in every situation, for all time. Trotskyists revere Lenin because he was a brilliant Marxist theoretician. Lenin was a life-long working revolutionary who didn’t merely write clever books for consumption by Marxist and pseudo-Marxist scholar-squirrels (thank you Gore Vidal!) who think they are much smarter than Marx (and Lenin), but who have never even led anything more significant in their lives than a robust discussion in a university lecture hall. Lenin’s words were matched by his deeds; he was not a smartass college professor, he was a revolutionary leader who organized a political party that overthrew Czarism & capitalism in one fell swoop and then not only defended that revolution but helped create an internationalist revolutionary organization (the COMINTERN) to help educate and lead the working class to victory worldwide. None of the clever critics of Lenin have ever achieved even the tiniest fraction of what Lenin achieved in his life up to 1916! They are far more interested in maintaining tenure and their ability to publish boring books and furthering their pathetic “careers” than they are in leading a workers revolution – or even a militant strike of campus workers, for that matter. Can’t do that! They might get fired.

    Oh, hell, one more thing: “Ruthless criticism”, “savage criticism” blah blah. Fake-revolutionaries try to pump up their egos by launching “ruthless” criticism against their opponents as if being a revolutionary Marxist/Leninist/Trotskyist was simply a matter of being the “most ruthless” critic of someone with political ideas opposed to yours. That is the method of Stalinism: he was the “most ruthless critic” who had his opponents murdered in order to keep his cabal in power in the USSR – a cabal that, ultimately, as Trotsky predicted – sold the USSR down the river in order to pursue new “careers” as capitalists and “world citizens”. We do not need “ruthless” criticism; we need “constructive” criticism: criticism which has as its main goal not raising some pipsqueak to the level of a “Great Leader” but whose goal is to lead the working class to victory over the capitalist class. The criticism between comrades should be scientific, honest, direct and firmly grounded in the methods of dialectical materialism and and in the spirit of the revolutionary Marxist tradition of the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky. “Ruthlessness”, in case you are not aware, is not considered to be a favorable characteristic of relations between human beings who intend to be political allies in time of revolution. If we ever intend to conduct ourselves in a “Trotskyist” manner, we should realize that our criticism should be directed at the misleaders of the workers who happen to be leading “Marxist” political parties in a decidedly non-Marxist fashion and direction. One of the greatest lessons taught by Lenin was that for Marxist criticism to be effective, it must seek to separate the fake-Marxist party leaders from “their” membership, “patiently explaining” to those workers how and why their party is going astray and directing the “ruthless criticism” not at the opposition parties but at those parties’ LEADERS.

    Let the Stalinists and Maoists and all the other renegades from “authentic” Marxism beat their party members and the working calls into intellectual submission via “ruthless” and “savage” criticism. We will use Lenin’s formula: “patiently explain”. That’s how the Bolshevik Party won the allegiance of the revolutionary Russian workers, soldiers and peasants in 1917. Let’s save our most “ruthless” and “savage” criticism for the capitalist class and the fascists, shall we?

    Workers of the World, Unite!

    Independent Workers Party of Chicago

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