EdgeLeft : The Long Strange Posthumous Life of Leon Trotsky
…an occasional column by David McReynolds, it can be circulated without further permission…
Historically the Socialist Party USA had two major splits. The first was after the Russian Revolution, when there was an international split in all socialist parties between those who accepted the leadership of Lenin’s Third International and those who didn’t. In the US, [Eugene] Debs [1855–1926], who had proclaimed himself “a Bolshevik from the tip of my head to the tips of my toes” — reflecting the overwhelming international support for the Russian Revolution — then led the Socialist Party in rejecting Lenin’s “21 demands” [V. I. Lenin, ‘Theses on Fundamental Tasks of The Second Congress Of The Communist International’, 1920].
There followed the split which led to the formation of the Communist Party. The second major split — (actually two in almost one year) — was the right wing split in 1936 by the Social Democratic Federation which wanted to support Roosevelt, breaking with Norman Thomas [1884–1968], and the split by the Socialist Workers Party which, under James Cannon [1890–1974], had entered the Socialist Party and then in 1937 split, taking much of the youth of the Socialist Party with it.
By the 1960s (in fact even by 1951, when I joined the Socialist Party) both the Socialist and Communist Parties were shadows of the past, battered by various currents. The Communist Party was never able to build a mass base here after the Cold War began — Communism was seen not simply as “radical” but as “treasonous”. The Socialist Party, in no small part because, fearful it might be accused of being communist, spent too little time on what it favored, and too much time making sure its skirts were clean. (There is nothing simple about this — the Communist Party always had internal dissent, and there was a serious left wing in the Socialist Party, which I joined when I came into the SP.)
Thus when we leap forward to the “final split” in the SP in 1972 we are talking about midgets. Max Shachtman [1904–1971] took out his people to form the Social Democrats USA (actually, he had the majority at the 1972 convention, so for a brief moment he was the SP — it is ironic that it is Shachtman’s group which has since totally [?] vanished). Michael Harrington [1928–1989] finally broke with Shachtman and split to form the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee which morphed into today’s Democratic Socialists of America. The remnants of the old Socialist Party, some on the left, some on the right, regrouped under Frank Zeidler [1912–2006] in 1973 to form what is today the Socialist Party USA, and which is, pretty much, the legitimate heir to the party of Debs and Thomas. (It is under the banner of this group that I ran for President in 1980 and 2000).
In the real world nothing is static. The Socialist Party, which has about 1,000 members, has attracted newer members who are not aware of the history, and whose radicalism includes an admiration [for] Lenin and Trotsky. The SP is not anywhere near another split — only genuine Trotskyist groups can split when they have less than … 1,000 members. But I’ve been fascinated by this odd posthumous life of Trotsky, and want to reflect on it here.
There really aren’t any Leninists running around — there are lots of people who belong to “Marxist/Leninist” groups, such as the Communist Party, but there are simply not a dozen different Marxist/Leninist groups in this country. There are large numbers of socialists who are not even aware that there was a Marxist tradition before Lenin, and independent of Lenin. There must be a few Stalinist groups, I am sure I could find them on Google, but not even the Communist Party today counts as Stalinist. Stalin has almost no heirs. [Almost. See : Protestant Stalinist Party. Also : arch-rivals Catholic Trotskyist Party of America. Discussion here and below.] In fact, the interesting thing about Stalin is that almost no one wanted to duplicate his politics. The Japanese and Italian Communist Parties broke with Moscow very early, not long after Tito had taken Yugoslavia out of the “Communist Bloc”. Mao (a man Stalin once thought might best be “eliminated”) defied Stalin almost from the beginning. The Vietnamese were careful, in taking aid from both China and the Soviet Union, not to duplicate the Soviets in their own political patterns (there were never any purge trials in Vietnam to equal those in the Soviet Union). And Cuba stands almost in its own tradition, bending to Russia when it depended of Moscow’s aid, but building on Cuba’s own traditions.
It was as if everyone looked at Stalin and thought “there is a lot there we don’t want to repeat”. Even the Soviets, to the astonishment of the West, broke with their own “tradition” when Stalin died, and, after the murder of Beria, allowed a peaceful transfer of power to Khrushchev.
But Trotsky while dead, is still very much alive. Sometimes as a ghost on the far right — Max Shachtman became the first true neo-conservative, embracing the system. His followers took key positions in the Reagan Administration and in the right wing of the Democratic Party. Younger readers may find it hard to believe (I admit that even I do) that Shachtman, who went into the Communist Party in its early years, traveled to the Soviet Union, was a significant leader of the American Communist Party, ended his life supporting the US invasion of Cuba (the Bay of Pigs), the US invasion of Indochina, shifted from a position critical of Israel to one of fervent support of Israel. I knew Shachtman well, and while I didn’t like the man, or trust him, I would never have thought he would have ended in the camp of the enemy.
The original Trotskyist movement in this country formed in the late 1920s, headed by James Cannon and Max Shachtman. It was authentically revolutionary, had an honorable tradition of work in the trade union movement. It reflected the international split, following Lenin’s death, between Stalin, the General Secretary of the Soviet Party, and Trotsky, the brilliant, courageous military leader of the Red Armies. Stalin insisted that a world revolution was not in the cards history had dealt, that the only hope was to build “socialism in one country”. Trotsky, by far the more revolutionary, and internationalist, argued that “socialism in one country” would become bureaucratic, militarized, and fatally “deformed”. Both men were right. There was to be no world revolution. Germany, which had a powerful socialist movement, did not have a revolution and could not rescue the young Soviet Union. Trotsky was right, the Soviet Union became a police state. There was one crucial shift, however, which caused Trotsky to the end of his life to argue that the Soviet Union had to be defended in any conflict with the West — private property had been collectivized, and the old class had been destroyed. Shachtman split over the matter of the Soviet invasion of Finland, setting up what would beome the Independent Socialist League, which lasted until it merged into the Socialist Party in 1958.
Some contemporary Trotskyist groups, such as the ISO (International Socialist Organization) represent what might be called Shachtman’s radical positions of the 1950s. The official Trotskyist group, the Socialist Workers Party, long since became a cult, focused on support of Cuba largely ignoring its own Trotskyist past. There are other groups which owe a debt to Trotsky — Solidarity, while hardly an orthodox Trotskyist group, comes out of that background. New Politics, founded by Julius [1922–2003] and Phyllis Jacobson (and a journal on which I was once a member of the editorial board) had its origins in a kind of “left Shachtmanite” position. I felt I served as the “shabbas goy” on the editorial board, since I was primarily a pacifist, and had never been a Trotskyist. At one point — and perhaps the last intellectually significant split in the Trotskyist movement — Bert Cochran [1913–1984] formed a new publication, the American Socialist, which had a brief useful life but could not be sustained. These groups have made real contributions to the American Left.
They made, for the most part, a very serious effort to uphold the best of the Russian Revolution, while being frank about the disaster of Stalin. Some of the Trotskyists did finally face the problems inherent in Leninism, the vanguard theory of change, the concept of democratic centralism, and the fact Trotsky himself was not really any nicer than Lenin. There are always apologies made for the violent suppression of the workers uprising at Kronstadt — and I wish the Trotskyists, and Leninists, some of whom are now in the Socialist Party, would realize that if one can justify mass murder because the situation demanded it, they should be much more hesitant in writing off the Socialist Parties in the West because they, too, made compromises. I guess my question to the Leninists is why are crimes and mistakes acceptable if committed by the followers of Lenin, but not if committed by the non-Communist left. (Thus far the best answer I’ve heard is that in the name of the revolution, murder, while regrettable, is defensible).
The Workers World Party, formed in 1956, when the Socialist Workers Party had a split over the Hungarian Revolution, (WWP supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary) became a thorn in the side of many of us, with its range of front groups — the International Action Center, ANSWER, etc. In due time WWP had a split of its own, the Party [for] Socialism and Liberation, which took ANSWER with it. WWP still exists.
If one had time and the inclination, the list of those who were in the Trotskyist movement, or touched by it, is truly remarkable. Dwight Macdonald‘s [1906–1982] Politics, Dissent Magazine, and literally dozens of small Trotskyist groups. My own primary mentor, A. J. Muste, was briefly — very briefly — in the Trotskyist movement. The Trotskyist movement has had one great advantage over the Communists — with very few exceptions they never actually had power. And thus they could be pure. All those who hold state power will find that it forces compromises.
So much for this very too brief run down. I have read Trotsky, and Lenin, and Stalin, and a number of others from that period. I liked Lenin and still do — I just don’t agree with him. My own path led me to Gandhi. I liked Trotsky a bit less, though I concede he was brilliant. Isaac Deutscher [1907–1967], in one of his three volumes on Trotsky, cites the case where, in one of the inner-party fights, Trotsky felt he had to make a temporary peace with Stalin. The price which Stalin exacted was that Trotsky withdraw his support from two of his own key allies. Which Trotsky did. Not surprisingly, his allies, once abandoned, sided with Stalin in the next round of in-fighting and helped seal Trotsky’s fate.
All of which brings me to a deeply flawed film I rented from Netflix — Exile in Buyukada. Deeply flawed because while showing Trotsky’s arrival in Turkey, where he spent the first period of his exile, the sound track, featuring a narration by the wonderful actor, Vanessa Redgrave, is “buried” under the music. There are occasional sub-titles, but essentially the film is only worth watching for the sense of that period. And it is to that sense that I now want to turn my attention, (while, by pure chance, listening to a new recording of a Shostakovitch work, featuring the Internationale).
Let’s leave aside the manipulations of Shachtman, the betrayals of the Neocons, the chaos created by Workers World… and turn back to the events in the Soviet Union. That Trotsky would be expelled from the Communist Party and sent into exile was unthinkable. He had been essential to the revolution. He did not leave the young Soviet Union as a dissident — he left it as a believer in the revolution. He and his wife knew they faced death wherever they went, from Stalin’s agents (who did finally murder him when he was in Mexico).
Trotsky had no allies within the socialist movement. He despised the socialist parties of the West. The problem was that he had no allies at all except for the opposition to Stalin which, in the Soviet Union, could not be expressed without risking certain death. In the West the Trotskyist movement was a small splinter in the side of the Communist movement, under steady ideological attack as “agents of the State”. To support Trotsky was genuinely heroic — no one was going to pay you! You had no chance at career advancement. You had no allies in power anywhere in the world. The Communists would check out books by Trotsky from public libraries in order to destroy them (and I knew one Shachtmanite who checked out those same books from public libraries in order to save them from destruction – theft in the name of love).
The Communists held power in the Soviet Union. Their parties in Western Europe were strong. And strong even as far away as Indochina, and China, and Japan.
So those of us who have basic disagreements with Trotsky — essentially the same disagreements we have with Lenin — should pay the history of Trotsky some respect. He was not a democrat. It has been said, by one of those in post-Soviet Russia, that if Trotsky had won the fight against Stalin the outcome would have been just as many executions — but with a far more literary flavor. The sadness of Trotsky’s life is that once the internal fight in the Soviet Union had been decided, Trotsky was an heroic but lost figure. His followers in the US ended on the subversive list, were hounded from their jobs by the FBI.
But always and always, those who took Trotsky’s side cannot help but look back and think what the Soviet Union might have been if only Stalin had lost that fight. I’m very much among those who feel that American socialists need to look to American history — not Russian or Chinese or Cuban history — to chart our course. But no one who has looked back at the early part of the 20th century can fail to be thrilled by that moment when it seemed as if the workers were actually in control of history. It was this painful memory Trotsky carried with him as he began the first of his exiles in Turkey.
May I suggest — though my Trotskyist and Leninist friends will not hear me — that the greatest honor one could pay to Leon Trotsky would be to let him rest with the honor he earned. And, as he broke with Stalin, so let us break with all undemocratic efforts at revolution, which would make human beings merely “means to the end”. Humanity — each life — is an end in itself. As A.J. Muste said, “there is no way to peace — peace is the way”. So too, revolution begins now, as we empower ourselves to think for our own time.
David McReynolds worked for the War Resisters League for 39 years, retired in 1999, and lives with his two cats on the Lower East Side. He is a former Chair of the War Resisters International. He can be contacted at: dmcreynolds[at]nyc[dot]rr[dot]com.
1. Maoist Internationalist Movement (MIM) (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) [See : On crackpots engaged in pigwork, January 10, 2009]
2. Prairie Fire Organizing Committee
3. US Marxist-Leninist Organization (Hoxhaist) [See : Comrade Loulou and the Fun Factory, November 9, 2008]
4. Communist Voice Organization (Anti-Revisionist/Marxist-Leninist)
5. Workers Party USA (Hoxhaist)
6. Freedom Road Socialist Organization (post-Maoist/Marxist-Leninist) [See : We Are Family]
7. Revolutionary Communist Party USA (Maoist/Avakian)
8. Ray O. Light Group (Maoist) [Revolutionary Organization of Labor, USA]
9. Progressive Labour Party (ex-Maoist/Stalinist) [This is an official web blog featuring some of the articles from Progressive Labor Party’s CHALLENGE NEWSPAPER.]
10. Marxist-Leninist Organizer
11. League of Revolutionaries for a New America (post-Maoist)
12. Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (ex-Gorbachevist/Democratic Socialist)
Trotsky’s ghost wandering the White House
June 7, 2003
Influence on Bush aides: Bolshevik’s writings supported the idea of pre-emptive war
Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, was paranoid. Perhaps his deepest fears centred around his great rival for the leadership of the Bolshevik movement, Leon Trotsky. Stalin went to extraordinary lengths to obliterate not only Trotsky but also the ragtag international fellowship known as the Left Opposition, which supported Trotsky’s political program. In the late 1920s, Stalin expelled Trotsky from the Communist Party and deported him from the Soviet Union. Almost instantly, other Communist parties moved to excommunicate Trotsky’s followers, notably the Americans James P. Cannon and Max Shachtman.
In 1933, while in exile in Turkey, Trotsky regrouped his supporters as the Fourth International. Never amounting to more than a few thousand individuals scattered across the globe, the Fourth International was constantly harassed by Stalin’s secret police, as well as by capitalist governments. The terrible purge trials that Stalin ordered in the late 1930s were designed in part to eliminate any remaining Trotskyists in the Soviet Union. Fleeing from country to country, Trotsky ended up in Mexico, where he was murdered by an ice-pick-wielding Stalinist assassin in 1940. Like Macbeth after the murder of Banquo, Stalin became even more obsessed with his great foe after killing him. Fearing a revival of Trotskyism, Stalin’s secret police continued to monitor the activities of Trotsky’s widow in Mexico, as well as the far-flung activities of the Fourth International.
More than a decade after the demise of the Soviet Union, Stalin’s war against Trotsky may seem like quaint ancient history. Yet Stalin was right to fear Trotsky’s influence. Unlike Stalin, Trotsky was a man of genuine intellectual achievement, a brilliant literary critic and historian as well as a military strategist of genius. Trotsky’s movement, although never numerous, attracted many sharp minds. At one time or another, the Fourth International included among its followers the painter Frida Kahlo (who had an affair with Trotsky), the novelist Saul Bellow, the poet André Breton and the Trinidadian polymath C.L.R. James.
As evidence of the continuing intellectual influence of Trotsky, consider the curious fact that some of the books about the Middle East crisis that are causing the greatest stir were written by thinkers deeply shaped by the tradition of the Fourth International.
In seeking advice about Iraqi society, members of the Bush administration (notably Paul D. Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defence, and Dick Cheney, the Vice-President) frequently consulted Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi-American intellectual whose book The Republic of Fear is considered to be the definitive analysis of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule.
As the journalist Christopher Hitchens notes, Makiya is “known to veterans of the Trotskyist movement as a one-time leading Arab member of the Fourth International.” When speaking about Trotskyism, Hitchens has a voice of authority. Like Makiya, Hitchens is a former Trotskyist who is influential in Washington circles as an advocate for a militantly interventionist policy in the Middle East. Despite his leftism, Hitchens has been invited into the White House as an ad hoc consultant.
Other supporters of the Iraq war also have a Trotsky-tinged past. On the left, the historian Paul Berman, author of a new book called Terror and Liberalism, has been a resonant voice among those who want a more muscular struggle against Islamic fundamentalism. Berman counts the Trotskyist C.L.R. James as a major influence. Among neo-conservatives, Berman’s counterpart is Stephen Schwartz, a historian whose new book, The Two Faces of Islam, is a key text among those who want the United States to sever its ties with Saudi Arabia. Schwartz spent his formative years in a Spanish Trotskyist group.
To this day, Schwartz speaks of Trotsky affectionately as “the old man” and “L.D.” (initials from Trotsky’s birth name, Lev Davidovich Bronstein). “To a great extent, I still consider myself to be [one of the] disciples of L.D,” he admits, and he observes that in certain Washington circles, the ghost of Trotsky still hovers around. At a party in February celebrating a new book about Iraq, Schwartz exchanged banter with Wolfowitz about Trotsky, the Moscow Trials and Max Shachtman.
“I’ve talked to Wolfowitz about all of this,” Schwartz notes. “We had this discussion about Shachtman. He knows all that stuff, but was never part of it. He’s definitely aware.” The yoking together of Paul Wolfowitz and Leon Trotsky sounds odd, but a long and tortuous history explains the link between the Bolshevik left and the Republican right.
To understand how some Trotskyists ended up as advocates of U.S. expansionism, it is important to know something about Max Shachtman, Trotsky’s controversial American disciple. Shachtman’s career provides the definitive template of the trajectory that carries people from the Left Opposition to support for the Pentagon.
Throughout the 1930s, Shachtman loyally hewed to the Trotsky line that the Soviet Union as a state deserved to be defended even though Stalin’s leadership had to be overthrown. However, when the Soviet Union forged an alliance with Hitler and invaded Finland, Shachtman moved to a politics of total opposition, eventually known as the “third camp” position. Shachtman argued in the 1940s and 1950s that socialists should oppose both capitalism and Soviet communism, both Washington and Moscow.
Yet as the Cold War wore on, Shachtman became increasingly convinced Soviet Communism was “the greater and more dangerous” enemy. “There was a way on the third camp left that anti-Stalinism was so deeply ingrained that it obscured everything else,” says Christopher Phelps, whose introduction to the new book Race and Revolution details the Trotskyist debate on racial politics. Phelps is an eloquent advocate for the position that the best portion of Shachtman’s legacy still belongs to the left.
By the early 1970s, Shachtman was a supporter of the Vietnam War and the strongly anti-Communist Democrats such as Senator Henry Jackson. Shachtman had a legion of young followers (known as Shachtmanites) active in labour unions and had an umbrella group known as the Social Democrats. When the Shachtmanites started working for Senator Jackson, they forged close ties with hard-nosed Cold War liberals who also advised Jackson, including Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz; these two had another tie to the Trotskyism; their mentor was Albert Wohlstetter, a defence intellectual who had been a Schachtmanite in the late 1940s.
Shachtman died in 1972, but his followers rose in the ranks of the labour movement and government bureaucracy. Because of their long battles against Stalinism, Shachtmanites were perfect recruits for the renewed struggle against Soviet communism that started up again after the Vietnam War. Throughout the 1970s, intellectuals forged by the Shachtman tradition filled the pages of neo-conservative publications. Then in the 1980s, many Social Democrats found themselves working in the Reagan administration, notably Jeanne Kirkpatrick (who was ambassador to the United Nations) and Elliott Abrams (whose tenure as assistant secretary of state was marred by his involvement with the Iran-Contra scandal).
The distance between the Russia of 1917 and the Washington of 2003 is so great that many question whether Trotsky and Shachtman have really left a legacy for the Bush administration. For Christopher Phelps, the circuitous route from Trotsky to Bush is “more a matter of rupture and abandonment of the left than continuity.”
Stephen Schwartz disagrees. “I see a psychological, ideological and intellectual continuity,” says Schwartz, who defines Trotsky’s legacy to neo-conservatism in terms of a set of valuable lessons. By his opposition to both Hitler and Stalin, Trotsky taught the Left Opposition the need to have a politics that was proactive and willing to take unpopular positions. “Those are the two things that the neo-cons and the Trotskyists always had in common: the ability to anticipate rather than react and the moral courage to stand apart from liberal left opinion when liberal left opinion acts like a mob.”
Trotsky was also a great military leader, and Schwartz finds support for the idea of pre-emptive war in the old Bolshevik’s writings. “Nobody who is a Trotskyist can really be a pacifist,” Schwartz notes. “Trotskyism is a militaristic disposition. When you are Trotskyist, we don’t refer to him as a great literary critic, we refer to him as the founder of the Red Army.”
Paul Berman agrees with Schwartz that Trotskyists are by definition internationalists who are willing to go to war when necessary. “The Left Opposition and the non-Communist left comes out of classic socialism, so it’s not a pacifist tradition,” Berman observes. “It’s an internationalist tradition. It has a natural ability to sympathize or feel solidarity for people in places that might strike other Americans or Canadians as extremely remote.”
Christopher Phelps, however, doubts these claims of a Trotskyist tradition that would support the war in Iraq. For the Left Opposition, internationalism was not simply about fighting all over the world. “Internationalism meant solidarity with other peoples and not imperialist imposition upon them,” Phelps notes.
Though Trotsky was a military leader, Phelps also notes “the Left Opposition had a long history of opposition to imperialist war. They weren’t pacifists, but they were against capitalist wars fought by capitalist states. It’s true that there is no squeamishness about the application of force when necessary. The question is, is force used on behalf of a class that is trying to create a world with much less violence or is it force used on behalf of a state that is itself the largest purveyor of organized violence in the world? There is a big difference.” Seeing the Iraq war as an imperialist adventure, Phelps is confident “Trotsky and Shachtman in the ’30s and ’40s wouldn’t have supported this war.”
This dispute over the true legacy of Trotsky and Shachtman illustrates how the Left Opposition still stirs passion. The strength of a living tradition is in its ability to inspire rival interpretations. Despite Stalin’s best efforts, Trotskyism is a living force that people fight over.
See also : Trotskycons? Pasts and present., Stephen Schwartz, National Review, June 11, 2003 | Neoconservatives and Trotskyism, Bill King, Enter Stage Right, March 22, 2004 | The Soviet Union Versus Socialism, Noam Chomsky, Our Generation, Spring/Summer, 1986: “The Leninist antagonism to the most essential features of socialism was evident from the very start. In revolutionary Russia, Soviets and factory committees developed as instruments of struggle and liberation, with many flaws, but with a rich potential. Lenin and Trotsky, upon assuming power, immediately devoted themselves to destroying the liberatory potential of these instruments, establishing the rule of the Party, in practice its Central Committee and its Maximal Leaders — exactly as Trotsky had predicted years earlier, as Rosa Luxembourg and other left Marxists warned at the time, and as the anarchists had always understood. Not only the masses, but even the Party must be subject to “vigilant control from above,” so Trotsky held as he made the transition from revolutionary intellectual to State priest. Before seizing State power, the Bolshevik leadership adopted much of the rhetoric of people who were engaged in the revolutionary struggle from below, but their true commitments were quite different. This was evident before and became crystal clear as they assumed State power in October 1917.”