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.